Cramped on a fishing trawler, about 500 women, men and children found themselves stranded at sea just metres from dry land and safety. They had mostly fled from Eritrea before embarking on a dangerous crossing from to escape Libya. Under a moonless sky, one man lit a makeshift torch to attract attention, accidentally setting some fuel that had leaked on the boat on fire. Panicking passengers rushed to the other side of the boat to avoid the flames, causing it to capsize. In front of the Italian island of Lampedusa, at least 368 people died that night, on 3 October 2013.
When the rescuers arrived, they found a sea of corpses. The pictures of the coffins – many white and tiny – lined up in Lampedusa airport shocked the world and shook Europe’s conscience. In one of the coffins there were a woman and her newly delivered baby, the umbilical cord still attached.
Only eight days later, another boat would capsize in the high seas between Lampedusa and Libya. This time, it was mostly Syrian refugees who were onboard, many of them medical doctors fleeing the conflict with their families. Of the 268 victims, 60 were children. The tragedy became known as the “children’s shipwreck”. Heartbroken, some of the surviving parents would continue searching for their sons and daughters for years.
Adding to their pain was the knowledge that these deaths could have been avoided. Italian authorities had stopped a naval vessel from assisting the people on the boat to prevent them from disembarking on Italian soil. Delays in the rescue contributed to the deaths of so many.
The drowning of more than 600 people within a matter of days in the central Mediterranean should have shamed EU member states into acting to prevent further loss of life. Although Italy launched rescue operation “Mare Nostrum”, this lasted only a year. After that, EU efforts focused mostly on supporting Libyan coastguards to return migrants and asylum seekers to Libya, where they face arbitrary detention, torture and rape.
A decade on, and the EU response to sea crossings is still marred by inaction, apathy and hostility.
While there is no state-led naval mission focused on saving lives in the central Mediterranean, voluntary search and rescue initiatives are continuously hampered by governments. There is no agreement on where survivors should disembark and how to share responsibility for their assistance among EU Member States. And no serious effort has been made to provide safe and regular pathways.
In recent weeks, a few thousand people have arrived in Lampedusa, temporarily overwhelming the small reception facilities on the island. While arrivals have increased this year, their numbers are manageable. It is the absence of a proactive naval rescue mission – which would allow for people to be distributed across different ports – and a lack of investment in reception systems, that have caused this situation.
As things stand, the risk of tragedies remains very high. At least 2,093 people have lost their lives in the central Mediterranean this year. Over the past 10 years, at least 22,341 have died on this route alone, according to the International Organization for Migration.
In February, at least 94 people died near the beach of Cutro, in southern Italy, when their boat hit a sandbank and capsized. A judicial investigation is ongoing to establish the cause of the shipwreck, but the authorities knew that the boat was in danger in a rough sea and did not dispatch coastguards to rescue those onboard.
In June, a visibly overcrowded fishing vessel, carrying around 750 people, remained at sea for 15 hours without rescue before its catastrophic shipwreck off the coast of Pylos, Greece. The incident caused the death of over 600 people, including numerous children. Many of the passengers were from Syria, Pakistan and Egypt, fleeing for their lives or trying to reach their families in Europe. Despite the Greek authorities’ denial, survivor accounts state that a Greek Coast Guard boat tied a rope to the migrant boat and started towing it, causing it to sway and capsize.
In these and other situations, people could have been saved, had authorities acted in line with their search-and-rescue obligations and with the duty to protect people’s lives and dignity, and had European governments offered safe and regular pathways to people fleeing desperate situations, so that they could travel by safe means rather than an overcrowded and unsafe boat.
Despite pledges to crack down on smuggling operations, European leaders have consistently failed to produce the one measure that would ensure smugglers run out of business: providing adequate numbers of visas, including humanitarian visas for people fleeing war and persecution and therefore in need of international protection.
EU summits have promised “partnership” and “development”, particularly with African states. But in reality, funding has been increasingly diverted to border control programmes. These further entrench Europe’s dependency on authoritarian regimes, rather than addressing the profound inequalities pushing people to search for safety and opportunity far from where they are born.
Yet we know that when the political will is there – as was the case with people fleeing Ukraine– Europe is able to tackle enormous humanitarian challenges and assist millions of women, men and children with humanity.
The ghosts of past tragedies are still there, to remind us of the consequences of selfish, inhumane and racist policies of exclusion. But solutions are within reach, if we just don’t turn away.
Matteo de Bellis, is Researcher on Migration and Asylum at Amnesty International
This article was first published here by EU Observer