In 2011, in the wake of the Arab spring and the subsequent influx of migrants crossing to Europe in bigger numbers, a small Island near Sicily, known before for its beautiful tourist beaches, unwittingly became the ultimate symbol of what is now called ‘the migrant crisis’.
Today, I am inspired by the people of Lampedusa. The world was touched by the extraordinarily welcoming way in which the people of the island treated the refugees, who often outnumbered its population of 6000 inhabitants.
When Francis was elected Pope, Lampedusa was the first place the Pontiff visited outside of Rome, on July 8, 2013. During his visit, the Pope of the poor prayed for the illegal migrants who drowned while trying to reach the shores of Europe and threw a wreath of flowers into the sea, in a sign of mourning.
In his homily, Francis denounced what he called the “globalization of indifference”, saying the cry of the blood of migrants who have perished in the sea, rises up to God, who questions us regarding our brother and sister migrants.
Three months later, almost to the day, a 20-metre-long fishing boat carrying 500 migrants from different sub-Saharan African countries left Misrata, in Libya, in direction of Europe. Unfortunately, the boat’s engine failed a short distance from the shore, causing the ship to begin sinking. As the night had already fallen, one of the passengers decided to burn a blanket so they could be seen by the rescue boats.
What happened next on this godforsaken October 3rd 2013 is one of the worst tragedies you can imagine: the fire grew out of control, setting the gasoline reserves on fire, and subsequently the whole boat. Many passengers jumped, but the commotion caused the boat to capsize and sink, with passengers trapped underneath it!
Only 155 people were rescued from the shipwreck, and more than 360 dead were later reported after a search and rescue mission that mobilized airplanes and robotic devices. Some
100 people were found in the depth of the sea, trapped in the boat’s wreckage!
The Guardian newspaper recently published an article written by Pietro Bartolo, a doctor in Lampedusa, who shares his memory of that tragic event:
“I cannot forget what happened on 3 October 2013, not far from the port of Lampedusa. That day, 368 people – just a few hundred metres from salvation – lost their lives. Many were children. When I performed autopsies on these small bodies, I was struck by how well dressed they were – their little shoes, their hair in braids. Their parents had dressed them with care so they could enter a new world and start a new life, a life that would finally be free of worry. They never saw that world. And it breaks my heart to think that I will never even hear their stories. That day marked my life. Often those little faces are nightmares.”
One week later, on October 11th, a second ship carrying 200 migrants, this time from Syria and Palestine, sank some fifty miles away from the spot where the first boat sunk, near the same Italian island. Some 34 individuals died in the accident.
In the immediate aftermath of the Lampedusa ship wrecks, on October 18, 2013, some two weeks after the first and a week after the second ship wreck, the government of Italy spontaneously decided to launch a vast operation called ‘Mare Nostrum’ (which means “Our Sea” in latin), a naval and air operation to rescue migrants and prevent further tragedies.
This was almost 5 years ago.
If you haven’t watched any migrants’ news since Lampedusa you were probably surprised on June 11th 2018, when the newly elected Prime-Minister of Italy, Giuseppe Conte, refused to allow a migrant boat carrying 629 migrants, including 123 unaccompanied minors to dock. The Aid vessel was later received by Spain.
What? What did I miss? Why? What? How? How did we go from “This is Our Sea, for you and us” to “This is our Sea and you are not welcomed in it” in just a span of 5 years?
What happened is that Politics knocked down Humanity. Almost, as the match isn’t over yet.
First Set: Our Sea is your sea
The ‘Mare Nostrum’ response was the natural humane response to a tragedy that had shocked the whole nation. People had died in the sea before, but something in the Lampedusa shipwrecks, with the boat set on fire, and the staggering number of refugees landing on that small island, brought it closer to home for many Italians.
The rescue operation was grand and unprecedented: it mobilized a fleet of 32 boats, a submarine, planes and helicopters, 700 to 1,000 personnel from sea and air assets of the Navy, the Air Force, the Carabinieri (Italian Police), the Italian Red Cross, and others state law enforcement agencies and governmental agencies involved in controlling migration flows by sea.
It came from a good intention, but its hefty budget of $12 million a month was too heavy an operation for one country to run alone. Without any tangible support from other European country’s, the operation only lasted one year. By the time it ended, on Oct 31st 2014, Italy had rescued 130,000 people and offered then medical treatment, shelter, food and even legal aid.
Though the government tried to rationalize why it was putting an end to the humanitarian program, critics pointed out that the reason could simply be that Italy had been criticized by other European countries behind closed doors to let migrants leave the country to seek asylum in other countries.
Second Set: Filling the void
In the absence of a coordinated multi-state sponsored response, philanthropists and international NGO decided to fill the void and take matters in their own hands.
Today, I am inspired by: Italian American entrepreneur Regina and Christopher Catrambone, whom, in 2014 turned a former fishing vessel into a rescue boat, the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS); German NGO Sea-Watch and the Brussels and Barcelona branches of MSF who created similar floating facilities in 2015, the Bourbon Argos and Dignity I; SOS Méditerranée who, in 2016, chartered a 77 meter ship, renamed The Aquarius, operated in partnership with the Amsterdam branch of MSF, just to name a few.
These vessels conduct rescues between 20km and 50km off the coast of Libya and bring them across to the European side, mainly in Italian ports.
Since you’ve all been following the news about this unfolding tragedy, you know that this was not the end of the tragedy or the ‘they lived happily ever after’ part pf the story.
Third Set: Let’s talk about Border Control
Instead of supporting these laudable initiatives, different European Countries put restrictions on them, forcing them to abandon their operations one by one. Today, of the original dozen non-for-profits boats, only two vessels remain.
Fourth Set: The Libyan Deal
That wasn’t all: a few months ago, when the slave auctions taking place in Libya were revealed to the outside world by a courageous undercover reporter, we found out that the Government of Italy, the same we had lauded for its humane response to the Lampedusa shipwrecks in October 2013, had struck a deal with the Libyan authorities in February 2017, to stop migrants from reaching Europe by training, equipping and funding their coastguard.
Even the ever-forgiving person that I am, the person who always tries to find the good in people cannot find any ounce of goodness or good intentions in such a deal!! The most shocking part is that European leaders endorsed the agreement, praising it “for significantly reducing the number of migrants travelling onto the continent from Libya”.
And it is true, the numbers have declined. According to the UN’s International Organization for Migration, by mid-April of this year, only 18,575 migrants and refugees arrived in Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Spain by crossing the Mediterranean Sea, compared to the over 200,000 arrivals from 2016.
Fifth Set: Humanity knocks out Politics.
Unfortunately, this is just a dream set, it is yet to be played! I hope that day will come, though. Don’t throw away your ticket!
While we wait for the Fifth Set, let me ask this question: what has made the number decline so drastically? Is it that
(a) people’s conditions in their home country’s have so miraculously improved they abandoned the idea of leaving;
(b) the images of people drowning in the sea and the cruel treatment they suffer upon arrival in Europe has convinced people it wasn’t worth the trip; or
(c) they are still leaving their home country but they are captured, held captive, tortured and killed before getting a chance to board the migrants ships?
I won’t even try to answer that troubling question.
The question I will try and answer is the following though: what lesson can we draw from this article? When a stranger helps a child across the street or the elderly with grocery bags, it is called a random act of kindness. Some would go as far as to say that they don’t happen anymore.
I am glad that the people of Lampedusa and the extraordinary people who set-up and operate the rescue missions in the sea prove us that it does exist.
They didn’t have to save these migrants, but they did, braving the cruelest of streams and the harshest of politics to give hope to thousands upon thousands of African migrants who made the perilous trip across the Mediterranean Sea looking for a better life.
The flow of migrants reaching Europe may have slowed down but the crisis is still ongoing. We pray that history will reverse its course, and that Humanity will be the only possible response when faced with any tragedy of this magnitude.
As for the migrants who make it to the other side, I hope they will not be so broen by the harsh welcome that they will be discouraged to pursue their dreams. And I hope those little kids I see being rescued from the waters will grow-up to become doctors, lawyers, artists, writers. And historians, lots of them, to help us understand this movement and prevent the world to erase in shame or rewrite this unsettling episode of our collective Story!
Right Your Legacy, Mediterranean Rescuers and the people of Lampedusa and all the European cities that have welcomed migrants with open arms, making unbelievable sacrifices without expecting anything in return!
Um’Khonde Patrick Habamenshi