Lampedusa a favoured landing spot for migrant coffin ships
Syria conflict adding more human traffic to desperate, dangerous route
Rescued migrants arrive onboard a coastguard vessel at the harbour of Lampedusa yesterday
The small island of Lampedusa, 7.8square miles in size and inhabited by 5,000 people, is no stranger to boat people tragedies such as yesterday’s. Closer to Tunisia (113km away) than to Sicily (176km), Lampedusa has long been a favourite destination for thousands of African economic migrants who nearly always attempt the crossing in dangerously inadequate and unseaworthy boats, usually sailed by traffickers with links to organised crime. One such trafficker was arrested in Lampedusa harbour in the wake of yesterday’s sinking.
Most often the boats sail from the coast of Libya, as did this most recent coffin ship, which reportedly sailed from the Libyan port of Misurata.
Italian coast guard authorities estimate that at least 20,000 migrants – men, women and children – have perished in attempted crossings over the last 20 years, crossing for which they are likely to have paid between $8,000 and $12,000 dollars.
Obviously, Lampedusa represents the first stopping point for African migrants, but clandestine immigrants from other parts of the world regularly land on the coasts of Sicily, Puglia, Campania and Calabria. Only two days ago, 13 Eritreans drowned just metres off the Sicilian coast near Ragusa after the boat’s captain had thrown them into the water, telling them to swim the last 100 metres even though many could not swim.
Even yesterday morning, two other boats, one with 463 Syrians on board, had arrived in Lampedusa just hours before the tragedy. In recent times, Syrian refugees fleeing from the civil war represent the biggest national group of migrants arriving clandestinely in Italy, usually having sailed out of Turkish ports.
Coast guard authorities report that this year alone, they have registered some 2,800 Syrian boat people.
Researchers claim that the so-called Bossi-Fini law which currently regulates clandestine immigration has had a negative effect on the human trafficking. Given the visa restrictions imposed by this law, many people resort to the desperate measure of an illegal boat passage.
While many of the African migrants are unskilled workers from sub-Sahara Africa, among the boat people victims there have also been educated professional. Somalian athlete Saamiya Yusu Omar, who ran in the women’s 200 metres at the Bejing Olympics, drowned in April of last year as she attempted a crossing from Libya to Italy, in search of a trainer to help her prepare for the London Olympics,
The role of Libya in the clandestine immigration into Italy is often crucial. Samuel Cheung, a senior protection officer with the UN refugee agency, has said that while other north Africans may no longer make these dangerous crossings, Libya remains a “push factor” for migrants from sub-Sahara Africa.
They find limited hospitality in Libya, experiencing basic prejudice as well as suspicion by many Libyans that they may have served in mercenary military forces used by the late Libyan dictator, Col Muammar Gadafy.