Call for Mediterranean-wide rescue service as Lampedusa death toll rises

EU home affairs commissioner seeks increased funding for Frontex patrols

Italian police take pictures of migrants as they arrive with a group that includes Syrian and Palestinian refugees at Catania harbour in the island of Sicily yesterday. REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello

Italian police take pictures of migrants as they arrive with a group that includes Syrian and Palestinian refugees at Catania harbour in the island of Sicily yesterday. REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello

Wed, Oct 9, 2013, 01:01


With the death toll in last Thursday’s Lampedusa migrant boat tragedy continuing to rise, EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmström yesterday called for more funding for the EU’s frontier agency, Frontex, to enable it to launch Mediterranean-wide “search and rescue” patrols.

By last night the death toll had risen to 274 but divers are reporting many more bodies trapped in the sunken vessel.

Today, European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, accompanied by Italian prime minister Enrico Letta and deputy prime minister Angelino Alfano, will visit Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island that is actually closer to the Tunisian mainland (113km) than to Italy (176km).

Mr Barroso will doubtless try to dispel the widespread Italian belief that Italy has been left to deal with the catastrophic effects of this clandestine immigration on its own for more than a decade now.


Decrease in funding
In that same context, commissioner Malmström claimed yesterday at an EU meeting in Luxembourg that Frontex needs greater funding. The annual Frontex budget has decreased from €118 million in 2011 to €85 million this year.

A spokesman for Ms Malmström pointed out that Frontex currently has just fours ships, two helicopters and two aircraft with which to patrol the entire Mediterranean, adding that more resources need to be made available in order to improve the “tracking, identification and rescue” of migrant boats.

On Lampedusa itself, the arrival of the EU and Italian government delegations prompted a less-than-enthusiastic reaction from the island’s mayor, Giusi Nicolini.

“If Barroso, Letta and Alfano are coming here just to express their condolences, they can send me an email. They need not bother themselves. Here we’ve got work to do, urgently.”

The small island is struggling to deal with the impact of the latest arrivals of boat people, with some 928 of them crammed into an emergency reception centre intended for 250 people.

Rescue workers have expressed concerns about the poor-quality sanitary conditions in the reception centre, while Catholic charity Caritas has offered to house the migrants in dioceses throughout Italy.

Human rights agency Amnesty International also sounded a critical note yesterday, berating the EU for a fortress Europe migration policy that concentrates resources on tightening border controls rather than saving immigrant lives.

In the meantime, in an interview with Italian magazine Oggi, one of the survivors, 26-year-old Eritrean Aladin Idris Mahmoud, yesterday gave a graphic account of last Thursday’s sinking.


Cause of fire
Mahmoud said the fire that caused the boat to keel over and sink had not been caused by the passengers, but rather by the captain’s assistant, when he attempted to light an oil-fired torch.

When the torch came in contact with oil on the floor of the boat, the whole ship was very quickly engulfed in flames, he said.

At that point, those who could swim jumped overboard. When the burning ship turned around on itself three times, it then began to list badly, eventually turning over on its side. At that point, all the non-swimmers clung on desperately to the sinking ship while those who could swim dragged others over to the boat.

However, within a short time, the boat stopped turning and sank to the bottom, taking the non-swimmers with it, he said.