Clandestine immigrants are a burden no state wants to carry. The fishermen of the Italian island of Lampedusa understood this as they informed the coast guards about the dozens of drowning people they had just pulled out of the ocean, but weren’t given the OK to take them to the shore, where they could receive medical attention.
The Italian immigration law of 2002, initiated by the country’s right wing parties, prohibits assistance to illegal immigrants – with exception of emergency situations. Deciding that this certainly qualified as such a case, the fishermen brought the saved people into the harbour. Officials now deny that there was any delay in the rescue process.
Of the 518 people on the sunken refugee boat coming from Tunisia, 238 have been found dead and dozens are still missing. Those who have made it to safety are now being held under investigation for clandestine immigration, and might be fined with up to €5000.
The Lampedusa boat disaster caused a row throughout Europe over the tragic deaths, and loud criticism of European immigration policy is now being heard. The strange thing is that accidents like this have been happening for the past 20 years, but have never provoked such strong reactions. Hundreds of refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean sea over time, trying to reach European soil. The reason for the “popularity” of this case is probably the brutality of the deaths, and the media coverage it received.
Regardless of what caused the uproar, it is true that the approach of the European Union to clandestine immigration desperately needs some rather sophisticated reform. However, it has to be said that it is not just the EU that is imposing the laws and blocking change – it is first and foremost the individual member states that are blocking change. Italy and Spain have the biggest influx of immigrants from Africa and are often ‘stuck’ with them, as Northern states who do not have a Mediterranean border treat the issue with indifference and often refuse to take the refugees in. The responsibility for these people, who in most cases have paid fortunes to traffickers to escape the dire situations in their home countries, are rolled off on the countries of entry.
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault summed the imminent need for action up well: “Sympathy is not enough.” The Lampedusa tragedy further raised the pressure on Europe, but the continent cannot take in all people who try to escape difficult situations in their places of origin, for political and financial reasons. So, not only does European immigration policy need reform, the issue needs to be tackled at the root. Most refugees are from Eritrea, a dictatorship, and Somalia, a dissolved state controlled by al-Shabab Islamist militants. More such types of states will emerge in Africa. The African Union does little to nothing to stop dictators,and no structures exist to aid democratisation processes. Raw materials are still exported mostly unprocessed. With little economic growth and challenging political conditions, emigration is often regarded as the only option for a better life.
Ayrault is right, sympathy isn’t enough to deal with the tragedies that happen regularly on the ocean, but frankly, it is a start. Having empathy for people desperate enough to embark on such a dangerous trip is a first step, and hopefully something that will lead the European states to show solidarity to each other (I am not even going to comment on those who regard the Lampedusa boat disaster as something positive).
Europe has a lot of work to do when it comes to its immigration laws – and this concerns both the Union and the individual member states. Maybe, the moral courage displayed by Lampedusa’s fishermen will serve as inspiration – not just for politics, but for all of us.