‘Lampedusans are sensitive people. We made this gesture because we are suffering for those who died, because we are all human beings.” These words of a Lampedusan fisherman who helped lay flowers in the sea last week after some 300 people drowned as they sought refuge on the tiny Italian island bring home the terrible difficulties thrown up by the tragedy.
The island, near Libya and Tunisia, is overwhelmed by the flow of migrants. It cannot cope with the numbers involved without far more help from the Italian government, which makes a similar plea to the European Union for aid and burden-sharing. But there are so many obstacles involved. Italian fishermen or captains who rescue refugees from drowning risk being taken to court for trafficking because of recent Italian laws. The migrant flows from Africa hit Italy disproportionately, as 30,100 people have arrived there this year, compared to much fewer elsewhere.
There is no common asylum or refugee policy in the EU where national schemes differ a lot. Current policy provides that asylum seekers be processed in or returned to the country they arrived in. Fear of immigration and buoyant right-wing parties militate against creating a more open and transparent approach.
The Lampedusa tragedy should trigger a radical review of this ragged and irresponsible regime at European – and global – levels. Several elements contradict international legal obligations. Migration towards EU states from Africa is a reality reflecting political, security and economic crises in states like Eritrea, Syria, Tunisia, Somalia and Sudan. European intervention in Libya has made it easier for traffickers to operate from there. The boat people pay large amounts for these hazardous journeys. We need to know much more about their predicaments if we are to understand the reasons for these flows.
As the United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-Moon put it last week, referring to the Irish experience of migration: “We should treat migrants the way we want our own people treated when we go abroad”.