The shameful tragedy that took place last week near the island of Lampedusa, where an unknown number of people lost their lives (so far more than 140 bodies have been recovered), is not the result of an unpredictable accident. Among other things, it is down to the xenophobic turn that Silvio Berlusconi’s government took four years ago, when a legal reform in Italy turned all undocumented migrants into criminals and established sanctions against anyone who helps them, either by renting them a home or rescuing them from the sea. It would be an added cause for shame if that were the reason why up to three ships caught sight of the sinking vessel on Thursday yet refused to help the 500 or so people aboard, who were fleeing poverty and/or political persecution.
It seems like a sick joke that Italy’s deputy prime minister and interior chief, Angelino Alfano, who used to be a close aide to Berlusconi, is now demanding help from the European Union — which, it must be said, remained silent in the face of Italy’s excesses. This week, while a shocked Europe watched events unfold on the small Mediterranean island, the European Commission and European governments were conspicuously silent once again with regard to these xenophobic tendencies. Only Pope Francis raised his voice indignantly. Lacking the stature of other political leaders, a lone religious figure is crying out against a tragedy that already has too many precedents.
The European fortress has re-armed itself in recent years with migrant laws in which policing prevails. Security and the economic recession have been the ideal excuses to pass tougher legislation, both at the national and European level. Even the Socialist government of France joined the trend by stigmatizing Romanians of Gypsy origin. Spain recently added its grain of salt by refusing to assign health cards to around 150,000 immigrants living in an irregular situation in this country, effectively denying them access to the public health system.
The EU as a whole has washed its hands of the problems created by a massive influx of migrants, except for issues relating to maritime patrols through Frontex — which acts when a member state requests it — and agreements signed with African countries that are significant sources of migrants or get many border transients. Meanwhile, the dramatic trickle of deaths continues, with hundreds if not thousands of immigrants having perished in Mediterranean waters from drowning, hunger and exposure, without any sign of the famous European solidarity to be seen anywhere. Just as Nicolas Sarkozy ignored the Italian requests for help granting asylum to Tunisians fleeing conflict in their country, Rome and Brussels have also ignored the repeated appeals by Lampedusa Mayor Giusi Nicolini, who is helpless in the face of the permanent avalanche of Africans.
Each year, half-a-million people attempt to enter Europe illegally, while around 400,000 request asylum. The convulsed situation in the north of Africa as a result of the so-called Arab Spring is making it difficult for some of those countries to keep human-trafficking mafias in check. The deepening economic gap between both shores of the Mediterranean works as a permanent lure that simply cannot be fought by allowing or sanctioning human rights violations, as initiated by several governments. Such an attitude contravenes the principles that the European Union is based on. Simply waiting for the collective memory to forget this tragedy, like the others before it, is a lethal strategy.