People are dying on Europe’s doorstep. What are we doing about it?

By Dr. Nicolas J. Beger, Director, European Institutions Office, Amnesty International

The heat in Lampedusa, a small island at Italy’s most southern frontier, is scorching. What chance would my own 3-year-old son have had to survive in this heat if he was stranded on the shore, on a boat with no water, no food, no fuel? Would he have survived for three days? Maybe four?

Hundreds of migrants, including children, have died this way. Lampedusa’s ship cemetery is a striking reminder of their deaths. On each of these boats hundreds of people lived, hoped and died.

I cannot fathom the suffering and horror of the torture in Libyan prisons that make parents take this risk of such a horrible death for themselves and their children.

In 2011, the 6,000 inhabitants of Lampedusa saw up to 1,000 migrants arriving on their island every night.

And this on an island which lacks freshwater supplies and must import drinking water as well as all food and medication. How did they manage the influx of migrants? The Catholic priest who led the local efforts says he does not know precisely how, just that all helped however they could.

For its part the Italian government, instead of immediately helping Lampedusans, was busy convincing the EU that this was a major invasion and they wanted EU emergency funding.

But the answer from Brussels was no. And rightly so. The EU emergency fund kicks in when several hundred thousand people arrive, not when only half a football stadium comes. Yes, it was a crisis for this tiny island, but it was a blip on the screen for Italy as a whole and a non-event for Europe.

This year, Italy has been busy signing another agreement with Libya. And the EU was busy spending billions of Euros to prevent people from coming and to reform its Schengen agreement to curtail freedom of movement – one of its proudest achievements.

The message to EU citizens was clear: even if you lose the biggest benefit of the Union, which is the ability to move freely, we are doing all we can to keep those people away.

Last week, 54 people died of thirst after becoming stranded on a boat. Last year, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, some 1,500 have died despite the fact that the Mediterranean Sea was the busiest ever with the NATO intervention in Libya.

As we are gathering in the Amnesty migration camp on Lampedusa with 70 activists from 20 countries, including Tunisia, Morocco and Israel, I feel proud to work for Amnesty and proud that my team together with Amnesty International Italy made this possible.

At the same time I am also incredibly sad that we are only 70. Where are the hundreds of thousands of Europeans to demonstrate against these atrocities committed by our governments?

Why is our memory so short?  Why did we forget the recent times when Europeans had to flee war, torture and hunger? People are dying on our doorstep. Will we go and help or just continue to finance the efforts to push them back?

Take action: Italy must sink agreements with Libya on migration control

Read more:Dying on Europe’s doorstep: EU should focus on saving migrants’ lives (Press release, 19 July 2012)
When you don’t exist (Special web feature)
Refugees and migrants (Thematic page)