On a grim Sunday, less than a mile off the coast of Lampedusa, divers fished bodies out of a sunken fishing vessel at a rate of about nine corpses an hour. By nightfall, the number of confirmed dead from last week’s fatal migrant shipwreck had reached 195, but divers told horrific stories of as many as 168 more people still trapped in the sunken hull. There were 518 people on board the vessel when it caught fire and sank last week. Those who paid the traffickers a higher price were on the top of the ship. Those who paid less stood toe-to-toe in the ship’s hull. The ship had been at sea for 13 days, according to some survivor accounts. It was so packed, divers said “the dead were still standing” inside the ship at the bottom of the sea. The dead will likely be buried somewhere on the Italian island of Sicily in a makeshift graveyard that might as well be a moribund shrine to the world’s indifference towards the plight of people fleeing economic and political hardship.
The survivors of the wreck face a different kind of purgatory. The ship’s skipper, a 35-year-old Tunisian, has been arrested for trafficking and abetting illegal immigration. He has already been deported once from Italy on the same charges after navigating a boat with more than 80 passengers last April. Prosecutors are considering letting him stay this time, albeit in an Italian jail. The rest, mostly from Eritrea, are packed into a reception center on the island that is already overcrowded by more than 1,000 people. According to workers inside the center, the migrants and refugees wait in line about two hours for food, and more than an hour for the bathroom. Many sleep on the bare ground or on foam mattresses despite autumn rainstorms and muddy conditions. Pope Francis urged the local parish to open up a closed monastery on the island to house the overflow. But instead, the authorities will investigate the survivors for illegally entering the country. According to the 2002 “Bossi-Fini” law, those over the age of 18 will be criminally charged for illegally immigrating to Italy without first securing employment. They face deportation and a fine of €5,000 ($6,800). “It is our duty to charge them,” says prosecutor Renato Di Natale of Agrigento in Sicily, which has jurisdiction over Lampedusa. “We cannot avoid the law.”
The Bossi-Fini law has become a political powder keg in Italy since the tragedy. Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s Congolese-born minister of integration, who has been a victim of a racist hate campaign said the Bossi Fini law must be revamped. “It’s time to put the law back on the table,” she said on a tearful visit to Lampedusa over the weekend. “I hope that through this tragedy we can reflect on our position, our borders, our sea, and especially reach out for help so we should not have to tackle this drama alone, but together with Europe.”
The law currently states that immigrants must have a work contract before entering the country, which proves virtually impossible since hiring unknowns is not exactly standard practice in Italy, even among Italians. Because it is impossible to enter Italy and much of Europe legally, the migrants and refugees come through the back door by way of Lampedusa, and increasingly straight to the Sicilian shores. Malta is also a prime destination, though Maltese naval ships often guide the migrant boats to Italian waters, citing an inability to house migrants on the tiny island state.
The latest Lampedusa tragedy is one of many. Boats filled with migrants and refugees have disappeared without a trace in these seas before, but the fact that this one sank in plain view, has made it an example of the plight of so many. In 2011, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that some 1,500 people died en route to Italy and Malta trying to get into Europe. More than 200,000 have made the crossing since 1999, according to UNHCR.
Laura Boldrini, Italy’s president of the lower house of parliament, is a former spokesperson for UNHCR who spent years dealing with the Lampedusa refugee and irregular migrant problem. On a visit to the island this weekend, she called on the global community to try to help understand why people are fleeing in order to save lives. “We need to understand the reasons for the escape of migrants. We need to listen to them and hear what they need,” she said. “I hope this tragedy will not be forgotten after the tears dry. Repressive measures will never solve the problem. It is an illusion to think that those fleeing from war and poverty can become discouraged in the face of tough laws. This is the moment things must change.”
Those who support the tough measures disagree. “I hope they don’t change the law,” said Northern League secretary Roberto Maroni, whose party authored the legislation more than a decade ago. “It is hypocritical to fault the Bossi-Fini law for what happened. If anything, the blame lies with the international community who promised to help patrol the coast to prevent the exodus in the first place. The principal that anyone who comes to Italy must have a job first must be maintained.”
On Wednesday, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso will visit the island at the invitation of Italian prime minister Enrico Letta, who has called on Europe to help shoulder the pressure put on Italy to seemingly single-handedly protect Europe’s frontiers. "The Mediterranean cannot remain a huge open-air cemetery. Action must be taken," Laurent Fabius, the foreign minister of France, said on Sunday. European policy has historically focused on tighter border controls rather than creating a safe corridor trying to stop migrants and refugees from leaving foreign ports in the first place. But a better-protected border would certainly not have saved more than 300 people who died off Lampedusa’s coast last week, nor the thousands before them who died trying to find a better life.