No accident: why have 19,142 died at Europe’s frontiers?

The recent deaths off the coast of Lampedusa are a gruesome consequence of EU border and immigration control policies that follow the logic of security and restrictionism over human rights and international maritime law, says Nina Perkowski.

October 3rd, 2013 will go down as one of the deadliest days at the European external borders in decades. 363 people are now thought to have died in one single, tragic incident early that Thursday morning. And while the continuous, everyday deaths of migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean are met by silence, the magnitude of this ‘blood bath’ spurred the Italian and international media to report on it widely.

It was around 3.30am on Thursday morning when a boat with 518 people, most of them from Somalia and Eritrea, got into distress about 550 meters off the Lampedusa coastline. The motor had broken down, and water started flowing into the ship. Survivors tell that their mobile phones had been taken away from them for the journey to avoid detection, so they used their ship’s horn and signalled SOS also optically.

Three fishing boats passed in their vicinity and did not help, nor did they notify the coast guards.

At around 6.20am, somebody on the boat lit a blanket to attract attention. The fire spread and panic broke out. When people moved to one side of the ship, it capsized and sank. Alerted by screams of people in the water, a boat of local fishermen came to their help and rescued 47 people. The fishermen assert that they informed the coastguard by 6.40am, and that it then took 45 minutes for them to arrive at the scene – despite its vicinity to the harbour. This delay is not the only accusation made against the coastguards. According to local newspapers, legal charges have been filed against them for failure to assist people in danger. Two boats of the Guardia di Finanza nearby did not join the rescue effort. In addition, some of the fishermen report having been hindered in rescuing more people. While the coastguard denies these accusations, as I have reported previously on openDemocracy, it would not have been the first time that help to migrant boats in distress came too late.

Protest against Immigrant Deaths in Lampedusa / Antonio Melita

Last week’s catastrophe is the latest in a series of incidents that have left 19,142 people dead over the last 24 years, 13 of whom died only three days earlier close to a Sicilian beach. 19,142 lives are lost – and that includes only reported and documented deaths. Many others, having died and disappeared at sea, will never be part of these statistics. Giusi Nicolini, mayor of Lampedusa, made it explicit: we are witnessing war-like levels of death at Europe’s frontiers. In Pope Francis’ words, ‘this is a disgrace’. It is a disgrace for a political union that proclaims itself as a defender of human rights in the world. And that, at the same time, invests millions of Euros in restrictionist policies and practices that leave migrants and refugees little choice other than relying on smuggling networks, undertaking life-threatening journeys, and entering the European Union ‘illegally’.

Nicolini drew attention to the fact that three fishing boats had seen and ignored Thursday’s boat in distress, “because our country brought fishermen who saved human lives to court, charging them with aiding and abetting illegal immigration.” The cases of the Cap Anamur crew and the Tunisian fishermen come to mind, when those who had saved migrants in distress at sea faced lengthy court trials. Lampedusa fishermen admitted that they were often hesitant to save migrants, with one of them asserting that “this immigration law is killing people”.

In 2011 and 2012, it became painfully visible what happens when indifference and fear of prosecution replace international maritime law, which prescribes the assistance to boats in distress. In different instances, two migrant boats drifted for about two weeks on the Mediterranean Sea. In 2011, 63 people died due to a “catalogue of failures” in responding to their distress calls. In 2012, only one of 55 passengers survived a two-week drift on what is one of the best-monitored and yet deadliest seas in the world.

Thursday’s incident was – despite its exceptional and saddening magnitude – not an isolated case. It was not an ‘accident’ nor a ‘tragedy’ that could not have been foreseen or prevented. Instead, it is a gruesome consequence of EU border and immigration control policies that follow logics of security and restrictionism. Keeping those who are ‘unwanted’ out seems to have been, for the last 10-20 years, an objective for which EU Member States are willing to incur extreme costs. Hundreds of millions of Euros have been invested in external border controls, and thousands of people have died as a result of this strategy. With legal immigration channels being unavailable for those who need them most – the poor, the marginalised, the persecuted – and steadily increasing controls at and beyond Europe’s borders, it can come as no surprise that those determined to attempt the crossing resort to ever more dangerous routes.

And yet, reactions to last week’s deaths suggest that there is little willingness to rethink these policies.

Calls by Italian, German, and EU politicians for even better surveillance at sea, even harsher actions against ‘smugglers’, even more funding for Frontex, and even closer cooperation with neighbouring countries, primarily Libya, are deeply worrying. It is more than cynical to demand the intensification of those policies that created the conditions leading to Thursday’s events, proposing this as a ‘solution’ to migrant deaths at sea. And while policymakers in Italy and beyond hurried to blame ‘ruthless smugglers’ for luring migrants on unseaworthy boats and exploiting them, they remained silent on why it is that the smuggling business is booming, and why relying on such networks is the only hope for many who try to make it to Europe.

Over the last decade, we have had ample opportunity to see and realise that restrictionist policies do not succeed in persuading people to stay where they are, as long as their reasons to attempt reaching Europe are pressing enough. Already today, risks to life and health are huge for those who undertake the journey. And those who are lucky enough to survive the perilous crossing are likely to find themselves in detention for prolonged periods of time, face extreme hardships in some EU Member States – including inhumane detention conditions, or life on the streets without state support –, with many being under constant threat of deportation.

While Italy and Europe mourn 363 deaths, the 155 survivors of October 3rd will be charged with ‘illegal immigration’, it was already announced. According to Italian law, this is an offense punishable with a 5,000€ fine. The survivors were brought to the Lampedusa reception centre, which – having a capacity of 250 places – hosts now more than 1,000 people. Despite such laws and conditions, the number of boat arrivals in Italy has not decreased over the last decade. However strongly some politicians keep perpetuating the myth that harsh treatment and strict controls deter migrants, it is simply not true.

And where closer cooperation with third countries and greater surveillance do decrease the number of arrivals – by physically hindering individuals from leaving third countries, or pushing them back – these people do not simply disappear, nor does their need or desire to migrate. The infamous cooperation between the Gaddafi regime on the one hand, and particularly Italy, but also Malta and the EU on the other hand, did result in fewer irregular arrivals at European shores. At the same time, migrants stopped by or returned to Libya were detained in inhumane conditions, often facing torture or even death. And only this summer, Amnesty International made public that conditions for migrants in Libya remain intolerable: indefinite detention, torture and inhumane treatment continue also under the new regime.

Closer cooperation with Libya and other neighbouring states, as called for by politicians in recent days, would not put an end to death and suffering. It would merely remove them further from European territories, further from the eyes of European citizens, where there will be even less transparency, and even fewer possibilities for NGOs, activists, and political actors to monitor policies and practices.

Last Friday, Italy declared a national day of mourning, remembering the victims of October 3rd with a minute of silence. High-ranking national politicians have flown to Lampedusa to express their grief; they will be followed by EU Commission President Barroso this Wednesday. Among Lampedusa citizens, consternation, grief and mourning mix with anger. Too long have they witnessed the deadly consequences of Italian and European policies, and too often have they hoped for real change. Anger and indignation have also been drivers of the many political struggles by migrants or non-citizens in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and other countries in the EU and beyond. With perseverance and determination they have been protesting against unjust laws and regulations over the last months and years. As we mourn those who died or disappeared at sea when attempting to reach the European Union, let us join hands in a common struggle for a more just and humane immigration system. 

Read It's about us ! People's global action for fair migration policy

About the author

Nina Perkowski is completing a PhD in Politics at the University of Edinburgh, focusing on EU external border controls. She has volunteered with migrants and asylum seekers in Germany and Italy, and spent three months monitoring migrants’ rights for borderline-europe in Sicily in 2012.