March 2018 recorded the lowest number of refugees reaching the Italian coasts after crossing the Mediterranean Sea, due to accords which the nation initiated with Libya last year. And, while Italy takes a weight off its shoulders, an even heavier burden is put on the refugees, which are left in atrocious conditions and can see European solidarity as nothing but a distant memory.
From 2011, irregular migratory fluxes became constant in Italy, with most boats docking in its Southern provinces and the island of Lampedusa; in January 2017, the number of refugees who had reached Italian coasts since 2011 was 625,000. By the beginning of 2018, it reached 744,247 and, up until this March, 750,553.
Most of them come from sub-Saharan Africa – especially Nigeria, Eritrea, Sudan, Gambia and Ivory Coast – but start their sailing journey from Libya, where they put their lives in the hands of traffickers in the hopes of reaching European coasts. The refugees have to survive a long and perilous sea journey, at the mercy of unstable weather conditions, crammed in rubber boats and barges, holding three or four times the amount of people they were built for.
UNHCR has reported that, from October 2013 to February 2018, a total of 13,884 people have died or gone missing in the Central Mediterranean while trying to reach Italy; most of them are still unidentified. In 2014, Pope Francis warned European leaders against making the Mediterranean a “vast cemetery” and to help the thousands of migrants. In hindsight, this lugubrious prediction became an even sadder truth.
While Italy had set an excellent example of solidarity with the refugees since the first crisis by building camps to grant medical care, shelter and integration in society, this cooperation seems to have ended. Last February, Italy started cooperating with Libya to prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean to Europe by providing its Coast Guard with boats and training. By the end of 2017, around 20,000 people were intercepted and deported back to the Libyan detention camps, where their sea crossing journey originally started. The worst part of this accord is that the majority of the human rights violations take place in these camps; trapped in detention centers, the refugees have reported frequent episodes of violence including rape, slavery and torture.
“They kept us in a cage with our hands and feet tied, hanging upside down. They beat us up for days; I tried to report it to the Red Cross, but when they realised it, they punished me by dragging me through a street for 200 meters. I was spitting blood”
These are the words of Charlie, a 23-year-old who escaped, once he safely got on a NGO boat last year.
The accord was denounced last November by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, which defined it “inhumane” and reported that monitors saw people being “stripped of their human dignity”.
The EU has responded claiming that their priorities are “to save lives, protect people, to fight the traffickers and create legal immigration routes to reach Europe“.
The Mediterranean was, sadly, already a “vast cemetery” before the accord. Now, with the choice of Europe to leave thousands of lives in the mercy of abusers, there is an attempt to ignore the injustices, while simultaneously forgetting about all the people that lost their lives while trying to create new ones in Italy.
Maybe, without the sea crossings, the Mediterranean itself will not be an expanding graveyard anymore; but this does not mean that less refugees will die if they are left to these agonies. Without reporting these deaths and remembering the people, the Mediterranean will still be a vast cemetery, while people have chosen to become silent on the refugee crisis.
Picture credit: The New York Times