No end in sight to tide of migrant tragedies

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A migrant sits on rocks and stares at the sea in Lampedusa island on October 26th 2013. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP
14:15 CEST+02:00
A year after more than 360 Africans perished on a burning, sinking ship off Lampedusa there is no end in sight to the stream of migrant tragedies in the Mediterranean, or the political row over how to stop them recurring.

The victims of the Lampedusa disaster, many of them fleeing conflict and persecution in Eritrea or Somalia, were within sight of the Italian island on October 3rd 2013 when the tiny fishing boat they had been crammed onto in Libya developed engine trouble and began to tilt alarmingly.

The hellish nature of what ensued left the survivors plucked from the sea by the Italian navy scarred for life, and alerted the world to the humanitarian crisis unfolding.

In an attempt to draw attention on shore to the vessel's distress, someone on board set fire to a blanket.

Soon a whole section of the boat was on fire. Some threw themselves overboard while others stampeded to the opposite end of the vessel to escape the flames.

Fatally unbalanced, the 20-metre boat capsized, condemning those trapped in the hold to death by asphyxiation.

Pope Francis called on Twitter for people around the world to pray for the wretched victims.

It was described as a wake-up call, a tragedy that must never be repeated and a stain on Europe's conscience.

But a year on, Lampedusa is no longer even the worst incident of its kind, the horrors of that October morning having been surpassed in the last month by the death of 500 people off Malta in a shipwreck triggered by the vessel being deliberately rammed by traffickers trying to force its human cargo onto another, smaller boat.

The tragedy of Lampedusa prompted Italy to launch a rapid-reaction search-and-rescue mission known as "Mare Nostrum" ("Our Sea") which has, for the last year, picked up an average of 380 people a day from the Mediterranean surf, a total now nearing 140,000.

How many others have perished is impossible to know but bodies such as the International Organization for Migration put the death toll at over 3,000 this year alone.

The implosion of Libya, civil war in Syria and renewed Israeli-Palestinian hostilities have helped push the flow of would-be refugees seeking sanctuary in Europe to unprecedented levels.

Humanitarian organizations say new tragedies are inevitable and have accused Europe's leaders of closing their eyes.

Cash-strapped Italy has lost patience with its European Union partners' refusal to help shoulder the financial burden of patrolling its lengthy coastline (estimated at between €6 and 9 million a month) and has said it will end Mare Nostrum patrols from November 1st.

EU governments 'a disgrace'

A new operation, dubbed "Triton" and run by the European borders agency Frontex will take its place, but both aid groups and rescue specialists suggest it will provide nothing like the cover that the Italian navy does.

"Triton will never replace Mare Nostrum because Frontex is not a rescue body," said Mauro Casinghini, the national director of the Italian branch of the charitable Order of Malta's sea-rescue operation.

"Instead of crisis management we need long-term planning for dealing with migratory flows," Casinghini said.

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Organizations such as Amnesty International have slammed the EU for failing to accept it must increase the number of refugees it welcomes when the world around it is in flames.

European Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, who has tried in vain to persuade EU governments to adopt a coordinated approach to the issue, on Thursday blasted the attitude of some countries in the 28-member bloc.

"When it comes to accepting refugees, solidarity between EU member states is still largely non-existent," she said.

"In some countries, the number of yearly refugees barely exceeds a few handfuls. This is nothing short of a disgrace."

Italian lawmaker Mario Marazziti says a potential way of easing the numbers of boat people heading to Europe would be to allow refugees to make asylum applications in transit countries, rather than having to get to Europe first.

"If the requests could be registered with European consultants based in countries like Libya, then at least we could organize safe sea crossings in ferries, which would cost a lot less," the human rights activist said.

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