After thirteen days on the water, a tightly packed boat approached the small Mediterranean island of Lampedusa. The vessel, piloted by smugglers, carried five hundred African migrants, each dreaming of a new life in Europe—free from political, religious, or economic persecution they experienced at home. On October 3, the boat capsized, killing more than three hundred people. Only 150 illegal immigrants reached Lampedusa’s shore alive.
The boat’s engine failed less than a mile from the coast and, in an attempt to catch the attention of nearby boats, the captain ordered migrants to set fire to their clothes and blankets. The flames soon burned out of control and the vessel capsized, leading to one of the deadliest maritime accidents in recent history.
Their destination, Lampedusa, is far from an Ellis Island of Europe for these migrants.
Measuring less than twenty square kilometers, the island is home to a community of desperate refugees and migrants. Political and physical problems plague the island, growing worse as more people flock to its shores.
The island’s proximity to the African coast makes it a primary target for those trying to reach Europe. Smugglers charge enormous sums to escort people from continental Africa and the Middle East to the island. The journey is not easy, yet each year tens of thousands of immigrants attempt the crossing.
The failure of Italy and the European Union to focus on migration issues has led to a mismanagement of resources and development of improper policies. Refugees flock to Lampedusa, only to be detained in understaffed and congested jails; opportunities to apply for asylum are rare. As a result, in the last few years, an international human rights crisis has developed on an island eight times smaller than Washington D.C.
European nations have been slow to react. And when they do, their steps are not always thoughtful. For example, in 2009, the Italian government negotiated with Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi to, as the UNHCR claimed, “deny asylum seekers and refugees access to international protection.”
In 2011, North Africans fleeing conflict in Tunisia and Libya doubled the island’s population, forcing Italy to declare a humanitarian emergency on the island. According to the Council of Europe, Italy was not prepared then, and it is not prepared now. The Council of Europe’s Commission on Migration, Refugees, and Population denounced Italy’s response to the 2011 crisis in a document titled “Report on the visit to Lampedusa.” The official response criticizes Italy for, among other things, not addressing appalling conditions of hygiene; a lack of efficient transfer system; and absence of leadership and initiative to reopen the island and mainland reception centers.
After the October 3 tragedy, it seems not much has changed. According to Frontex, the European Union’s border security agency, about 31,000 people have crossed the border illegally in 2013 via the Central Mediterranean Route (an almost 100 percent increase from 2012’s 15,900). Yet Italy and the EU continue to ignore the problem. A draft report released on the day of the incident condemns Italy for learning “few, if any lessons” from the 2011 crisis and disparages the government for persistent poor preparation with regards to migration of any sort.
However, Italy’s plight stems from the Dublin Agreement, a broader European Union policy. This regulation mandates that refugees can only apply for asylum in the country in which they land. The agreement encourages border countries, such as Italy, to develop stricter border control or risk large influxes of refugees. Migrants and refugees come to Italy and must remain there with no chance of entering mainland Europe.
According to the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, “in practice, the operation of the Dublin Regulation often acts to the detriment of refugees. Its application can cause serious delays in the examination of asylum claims, and can even result in asylum seekers’ claims never being heard.” The report goes on to list excessive use of detention, separation of families, and a denial of appeal as other infractions.
The October 3 incident has refocused attention on the island and the international concerns it raises. At the site of the incident, Italian Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Angelino Alfano said that he hoped “Europe will open its eyes” to the Lampedusa crisis while Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, called the crisis “a problem for all EU member states.” Alfano also requested that Lampedusa and the Dublin Agreement be a topic of discussion at future EU interior minister meetings.
While political rhetoric seems hopeful and progressive on this issue, it remains to be seen whether the European Union will seriously address this problem. Susan Gzesh, Senior Lecturer and Executive Director of the Human Rights Program at the University of Chicago, says that discussion on immigration, and the establishment of the Dublin Agreement, did not arise until the European Union had solved its own internal, primarily economic, problems. Gzesh says that, while devastating, the 350 migrant deaths do not surprise European officials. Lampedusa may remain on the back burner as larger economic problems take precedence.
Hope for change lies in civil society: the non-governmental, religious, and human rights groups of Europe. These groups champion the sentiments of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, which is signed and ratified by Italy. The covenant affirms the right of human beings to live a life of dignity, and to be able to earn enough of a living to support their families. Gzesh said “it is a shared responsibility across nations” to provide people with food, shelter, and education.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso recently guaranteed Lampedusa €30 million euro ($41 million USD), a move that could prompt other leaders to follow suit.
Italy is set to become European Union president in July 2014. The international community will wait to see whether this added clout will prompt broader reform to address the worsening situation at Lampedusa.