FROM her hospital bed, Titi Tazrar, one of only five migrants who survived a crossing from Libya, described how 73 other passengers had died. They included three pregnant women who aborted at sea. “Some died because they fell into the sea at night,” said the 27 year-old Eritrean. “The pregnant women aboard suffered the most. We didn’t know how to help or comfort them. But soon after losing their children they too died.”
On the very day when Ms Tazrar gave her account, a game designed by Renzo Bossi, son of the Northern League’s leader, Umberto Bossi, called “Bounce back the clandestine migrant”, was removed from his Facebook site. A failure to block enough boats led to a message: “Try again…next time you’ll manage to show you’re a true Leaguer!”
Since May Italian vessels finding migrants in international waters have returned them to Libya instead of taking them to Italy where (whether or not they won asylum) most have tended to remain or else travelled to another EU country. The rescue of the 12-metre craft on which Ms Tazrar was found on August 20th triggered the biggest row yet. The church has been critical: the head of the Vatican’s migrants department, Antonio Maria Veglio, is locked in an acrimonious dispute with a leading Northern League figure, Roberto Calderoli. This matters, for history suggests that Italian governments at odds with the church do not last long. And Mr Berlusconi is already in bad odour with the clergy over his private life.
et some of the opprobrium heaped on his government’s immigration policy is misguided. The real objection is that the new approach prevents migrants from applying for asylum even if they are entitled to humanitarian protection (typically around a third of Mediterranean boat people qualify, according to the Italian government). It then forces them back to Libya, an undemocratic state whose leader scoffs at notions of human rights.
But there is no evidence that Italy is actually ignoring the plight of those, like Ms Tazrar, who manage to reach its territorial waters. Officials insist that she and her fellow passengers were rescued by a coastal patrol as soon as it was alerted to their presence. Since June 1st almost 500 people have been taken in by Italy (although, under the new law, they now risk prosecution for illegal immigration).
Graver doubts hover over Malta. Ms Tazrar and her fellow-survivors say that two days before their rescue their dinghy was approached by a patrol boat whose crew gave them fuel and life-jackets and even “turned on the motor because we were too weak”. Malta accepts that its men found the Eritreans, but says the migrants were in good health and rejected an offer of rescue because they wanted to reach Italy. As a prosecutor in Sicily began investigating the incident, Italy’s foreign minister, Franco Frattini, outraged the Maltese government by suggesting that it should limit Malta’s territorial waters because it could not patrol them properly.
Continuing illegal immigration across the Mediterranean cries out for a co-ordinated EU response. Carl Bildt, the foreign minister of Sweden, which holds the EU presidency, said new proposals from the European Commission would be discussed by foreign ministers in October. But he added that such a complex problem could not be solved at one meeting.
The EU should protect asylum seekers
We shouldn’t automatically label immigrants ‘illegal’, but tell that to the EU, especially when it comes to Italy’s accord with Libya
If I could delete just one term from the English language it would have to be “illegal immigrants”. The notion that it is a crime to risk one’s life fleeing poverty in search of a better life abroad is an affront to the most elementary tenets of justice. And yet politicians and journalists (myself included, in the past) routinely designate such people as illegal without a second thought.
This even occurs at moments of great tragedy. Several news reports this week have informed us that Italy is seeking a new EU blueprint on illegal immigration. This followed the discovery that 73 Eritreans died because the ship bringing them from Libya to Sicily drifted for 20 days due to lack of fuel without receiving assistance from passing vessels (except one fishing boat). The inference that these victims were flouting the law was made despite prima facie evidence suggesting they would have had solid reasons to claim asylum in Europe; Amnesty International’s latest annual report describes Eritrea as a state where virtually no opposition to its autocratic president Issayas Afewerki is tolerated.
It is difficult to have any confidence that the EU is going to improve the situation, at least in the short term. On paper, the union is fully committed to international law, particularly the 1951 refugee convention. Yet none of its governments have raised any audible protest against Italy’s signature of an accord with Libya that came into effect in May as part of a dubious buddying-up exercise between Silvio Berlusconi and Muammar Gaddafi. Under it, asylum seekers can be automatically sent back to Libya (a key transit country for Africans trying to reach Europe) without their applications receiving any attention on this continent.
Almost certainly, this agreement is depriving refugees of the protection that international law has theoretically guaranteed them for over half a century. The European Council for Refugees and Exile (ECRE), an alliance of human rights organisations, estimates that over half of the asylum seekers arriving in Italy qualify for refugee status.
There was much alarm – most of it contrived – among the political establishment in June when the BNP and other racist parties performed well in the European parliamentary elections. Rather than being outraged by their hate-filled manifestos, the European mainstream have been pandering to the far right for ages. International law has been shunted aside as if it is an optional extra by EU initiatives over recent years.
Frontex, the union’s agency for managing its external borders, has paid no real heed to asylum issues since it began operating in 2005, viewing the number of foreigners it can help keep out of the EU as a barometer of its success. In pursuit of these ignoble aims, it has taken part in operations during which naval officers have aimed their guns directly at terrified asylum seekers.
Boasting two far-right parties in its ruling coalition – Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance) and Lega Nord (Northern League) – Italy has gone the furthest of all EU countries in criminalising asylum seekers. But its callous inhumanity is by no means unique. Denmark, for example, is so eager to expel a group of Iraqis to whom it has denied asylum that it arrested them while they sheltered in a church earlier this month and is now restricting their access to lawyers. Concerns that the Iraqis’ lives could be in danger if they are forced to return home have not pricked many consciences in the supposedly liberal-minded Danish government.
Contrary to some claims, the EU is not swamped with refugees. The UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) last year requested help with resettling over 120,000 people. Only 7,000 of these refugees were accepted in EU countries. It is this lack of compassion that must be tackled if Europe is to have a fair system of asylum, rather than one that treats victims as criminals.