The bodies of drowned migrants are lined up on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa on Thursday. Hundreds of African migrants died when the boat caught fire and capsized, making it one of the deadliest migrant shipwrecks of recent times. Photo via Nino Randazzo/AP.
The civilian death toll of last week's shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa is predicted to be around five times that of the Westgate mall attack in Nairobi. Yet the story of how 300 or so mostly Eritrean refugees lost their lives trying to reach the tiny Italian island hasn't received anything like the same amount of media coverage.
There are obvious reasons for this – the absence of guns, the lack of an Islamic fundamentalist headline, the fact that the refugees were faceless, paperless people without crying Western relatives. What happened in the Mediterranean on Thursday was a quieter tragedy, for sure, but it was a tragedy all the same. With more than 30,000 migrants making the perilous journey to Italy's coasts each year – over 1,100 had to be rescued last month alone – the issue of refugees putting themselves at this kind of risk in the search for asylum is clearly one that needs to be dealt with.
Since the early 2000s, an immigration reception centre has been operating in Lampedusa, a small island off the coast of Sicily that has become an entry point to Europe for migrants from North Africa. Its original capacity was 850, but in 2009 it was reported that 2,000 people were being held at the centre at any given time, leading to massive overcrowding and unsanitary living conditions. This culminated in a protest by those detained there, which eventually saw a large part of the facility burned down in late 2011. After the protest, the centre's official capacity was reduced to 250, but reports regularly state that there are upwards of 1,000 residents at Lampedusa, not helped by a mass exodus to the island from North Africa during the Arab Spring.
Earlier this year, Pope Francis visited to pay his respects to the thousands of people who have passed through, and to express his condolences for the growing numbers who are surviving on an ever-waning stock of resources. Unfortunately, despite the visit from His Holiness, the island has remained all but invisible to the majority of people living safely inside Europe, with news reports about the centre and its living conditions remaining scarce. After all, media agencies know that many readers just aren’t all that sympathetic to the cause of people arriving on their home turf to supposedly steal their jobs and exploit their welfare system.
As Simona Moscarelli, legal expert for the International Organisation for Migration in Rome, told me, "Racist attitudes have been on the rise in Italy. In a climate of economic crisis, people are fearful and believe that migrants are a threat to them and their standard of living… It is based on ignorance. There’s a common belief in Italy that we are overwhelmed by African migrants, but this is not the case."
The majority of African migrants arriving at Lampedusa are usually held for two to three days before continuing their journeys to the Italian coasts. Once there, they don’t tend to actually stay in Italy. It's a gateway for their journey onto other parts of the continent, with the UK, France and countries in Scandinavia being the most popular destinations. However, Moscarelli explained why the influx of migrants is seen as such an issue in Itay.
"The point is that the 30,000 migrants who have arrived in Italy are really nothing compared to the numbers that arrive in other parts of Europe," she said. "The only thing is, they all arrive together. People are not arriving in such large groups anywhere else."
This issue of volume is at the core of last week’s events. When so many people are being ferried precariously between coasts, statistically it can only be a matter of time before a disaster of this magnitude strikes. The boat wasn't far from Lampedusa when passengers decided to burn their blankets in an attempt to attract attention, but the flames rose to such an extent that the migrants were forced to move en masse to the opposite side of the boat, shifting the weight too heavily and causing the vessel to capsize. Water temperatures and impact weren't too much of an issue; it was the fact that nearly all the passengers on board couldn't swim their way to safety. At the time of writing, sources are reporting 155 survivors – all of whom, bar one Tunisian, are from Eritrea.
According to Moscarelli, those survivors who eventually reached Lampedusa’s shores have been receiving medical help. Nearly all had lost members of their family and were suffering from shock. "Friday was a day of mourning in Lampedusa," she explained. "The permanent residents have welcomed migrants from North Africa and always do what they can to help them. What happened last week is of great sadness to them."
The option of ignoring this issue is one that is no longer open to the permanent residents of Lampedusa. And following Thursday’s events, it's no longer open to the rest of Europe, either.
Follow Nathalie on Twitter: @NROlah
More stories about refugees stuck in places they don't want to be stuck: