Immigrants at sea: Why Italy must do more

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Immigrants at a detention centre in Lampedusa. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP
16:10 CEST+02:00
With 1,000 immigrants crammed into a detention centre fit for 300 on the Italian island of Lampedusa, The Local looks at who bears responsibility for people arriving at the gateway to Europe.

“It’s at the point of collapse,” says Valeria Carlini, spokeswoman for the Italian Council for Refugees (CIR), of the situation in Lampedusa. “They spend at least six months there and there is no maximum time."

The sheer number of arrivals - more than 900 over last weekend alone - has put a huge strain on the island's local population of just 4,500 and the Italian government.

A total of 4,319 migrants landed in Italy during the first five months of this year, according to recent figures from Italy's Interior Ministry. During the same period, 13,304 were reported to have been repatriated

Lampedusa’s proximity to north Africa, around 100km away, has made it a hub for immigrants arriving by boat. Some seek asylum while many come in search of work in Italy or beyond in other EU countries.

Despite many immigrants making the journey with eyes on other parts of Europe, Carlini says those landing in Italy are the responsibility of the country's government.

“Italy is part of the EU, but the responsibility lies with the Italian government and the Ministry of Interior,” she says. The government has an “uncoordinated, huge internal structure” to deal with immigrants, which is "far from fully functioning", Carlini adds.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, thousands of people landed in Lampedusa after fleeing instability in north Africa and the onset of war in Libya. In March 2011, 3,000 people were sleeping rough or at the docks. As frustration simmered, migrants staying at one of the overcrowded centres set the building on fire in protest.

The new wave of immigrants led to a spat within the EU, with France temporarily going against Schengen principles by closing part of its border with Italy.

The president of Amnesty International Italy, Antonio Marcesi, tells The Local the EU is well aware that it should do more to support Italy. He adds that patrolling the southern borders of Europe is an EU-wide issue.

“Successive Italian governments have complained that they are left alone to deal with this, which is true to a certain extent,” he says. “[But] we are a big and developed country; cooperation from EU institutions would be welcome but it’s not an excuse for abuses."

The debate over responsibility rages on land and at sea, as each country with Mediterranean shores must assist boats in need within their waters.

Italy has in the past gone out of its way to help people in Libyan waters, says Judith Sunderland, a Milan-based researcher at Human Rights Watch. However, she says there are annual spats between Italy and Malta over rescues: “They don’t want to have responsibility for them after the rescue; the main concern is that there are people whose lives are at risk.”

In 2011 a boat was left adrift in the Mediterranean for two weeks; only nine of the 72 people who embarked on the journey from Libya survived.

Sunderland says that in addition to governments saving people at sea, private shipowners also have a duty. “One of the issues is the disincentive to private vessels, like fishing trawlers, to rescue people, because it delays their work and they’re reluctant to take on that responsibility.”

In 2004 a ship captain and two others were arrested in Sicily for aiding and abetting illegal immigration after a sea rescue. They were later acquitted, although the case may have deterred private ship owners from carrying out similar rescues.

On Sunday seven immigrants drowned after they tried to cross the Mediterranean by clinging onto a fishing cage towed by a trawler. AFP reported survivors as saying the trawler crew cut the line and pushed the victims back to sea when they tried to climb on board the vessel.

“There should be a full investigation because it’s horrifying to imagine that anyone could have taken the conscious decision to cut the line and condemn people to a watery death,” Sunderland adds.

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