Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Italy threatens to let loose refugees picked up in the sea

  • Print

The last time Mare Nostrum (Latin for Our Sea) was used as a political slogan in Italy, Mussolini's fascists were claiming dominance over the entire Mediterranean. This time it's different. It's the name of the operation the Italian navy is running to save asylum seekers from drowning on the dangerous voyage in open boats from North Africa to Italy.

In a seaworthy vessel with a working engine and a reliable compass, it's a 10-hour crossing and not very dangerous at all. In a leaky, massively overcrowded wreck that was scavenged somewhere along the North African coast by the people smugglers and sent off to Italy after a few rudimentary repairs, it can be a death sentence. An estimated 20,000 people went down with their boats before reaching Italy in the past 10 years.

The most recent victims, on Saturday, barely made it one kilometre off the Libyan coast before their boat sank, leaving 170 people in the water. The Italian navy does not operate in Libyan territorial waters, and the Libyan coast guard station near Qarabouli, east of Tripoli, has no ships of its own. The coast guard borrowed a couple of fishing boats, but only 16 people were still alive by the time they got there.

The boats usually flounder in international waters, however, and then it's the Italian navy's job. Operation Mare Nostrum began in October 2013, and since then over 80,000 people have been pulled from these sea-going death traps (though most were not actually sinking at the time) and safely landed in Italy. Last weekend, the Italian navy rescued almost 4,000 more.

This policy honours Italy's humanitarian traditions -- but since all the people who are saved claim political asylum on coming ashore, setting in motion a legal process that can last for years, the Italian navy is actually increasing Italy's problem as the first port of call for over half the undocumented immigrants entering the European Union.

Most of them have a good case for claiming asylum: a large majority of the people reaching Italy are refugees from war and tyranny in Syria, Eritrea, and Somalia, with smaller number from various West African countries. Nor do they really want to stay in Italy, which is going through a prolonged economic crisis and has very high unemployment. They would rather move on to more prosperous EU countries further north.

But international law says refugees must claim asylum in the first safe haven they reach, and in the case of the EU that is almost bound to be Italy, because it is so near to Africa and because the post-Gaddafi chaos in Libya means there is no control over boats leaving the Libyan coast.

Italy is now getting more than half of the EU's entire refugee flow -- probably well over 100,000 this year -- and all of those people must stay in Italy. It's expensive, it's politically poisonous, and the country's facilities for looking after these refugees are being overwhelmed. Yet Italy's EU partners seem quite content to leave Italy to bear the burden all by itself.

With almost all of the Fertile Crescent now in a state of war, and new flows of refugees starting as a result of the fighting in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, the numbers are going up fast. Five Italian warships are dedicated full-time to Operation Mare Nostrum, and on many occasions in the past few months they have picked up more than a thousand people in one day. This situation cannot last.

Italy has made no threats to stop the rescues and let the refugees drown. "We do not want a sea of death," said Rear-Admiral Michele Saponaro, who runs the operation from the naval command centre. But Rome is losing patience with its do-nothing EU "partners", and there is another way to address Italy's problem.

The Schengen Treaty does not include Britain and Ireland, which opted out, and four new EU members have not yet complied with its terms -- but 22 of the EU's 28 members allow free movement across their borders for legal residents of all the Schengen countries. This includes Italy, of course. So in theory if Italy just gives the asylum seekers an ID card and a document saying they have permanent residence, then they'll leave for greener pastures.

"We'll just let them go," said Interior Minister Angelino Alfano last May. "We want to clearly say to the EU that they either patrol the Mediterranean border with us or we will send all those who ask for asylum in Italy where they really want to go: that is, the rest of Europe, because they don't want to stay in Italy."

A previous Italian government briefly made the same threat back in 2011 and then the rift was papered over, but Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's new government seems to mean business. Italy not only wants its partners to contribute money and ships to Operation Mare Nostrum; it also wants them to share the job of looking after the refugees and not leave them all in Italy.

The EU is famously bad at making hard choices, but it's finally going to have to face up to this one.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles on world affairs are published in 45 countries.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 26, 2014 A9

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Winnipeg Jet goalie Michael Hutchinson

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Susan and Gary Harrisonwalk their dog Emma on a peaceful foggy morning in Assiniboine Park – Standup photo– November 27, 2011   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS / Jan 10  2011 ‚Äì WEB STDUP ‚Äì Frosty morning at -15 degrees C , in pic frost covers the the Nellie McClung statue  on the MB Legislature grounds at 7am

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

What should the legal drinking age be?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google