Refugee Ship Left To Wreck In Crotone: The New Era Of Indifference?

Last Sunday, a wooden ship sank near Crotone in the southern Italian region of Calabria, killing 67 refugees. There are three major immigration routes in the Mediterranean – the main, and most deadly, route, from central North Africa to Italy; the western route, from Africa to Spain; and the eastern route, from Turkey to Greece and Italy, which the wooden ship took when it left from Turkey via Izmir.

This last route “has been little reported over the years … it has almost been considered a second-class route,” the president of the Calabria region observes. “This is a route that has been consolidated over the last few years amidst general indifference… even the N.G.O.s have not manned this route.” But although no one talked about this route, it did – and does – exist, and every year has seen hundreds of refugees disembark in search of safe harbour.

Many of those refugees never made it to the other side. But last Sunday’s tragedy is a little different from the others: far too many dark sides are coming to light.

“The sea was too strong to be crossed that evening.” “The tragedy could not have been foreseen.” “They sailed through a new route.” These were some of the phrases repeated on Italian television, to try to justify the deaths of almost 70 people. But the truth in this affair is being concealed. Interior Secretary Wanda Ferro spoke of the “objective impossibility of intervening” due to the “force 7 sea conditions” in an interview with Italian newspaper Corriere della Calabria, but the on-site reports contradict these claims. Vittorio Aloi, commander of the Crotone harbourmaster’s office, says that the sea was only force 4 – an absolutely manageable condition for emergency response boats.

As we dig into the events that took place 24 hours before the findings, the situation thickens. At 4:57 am on February 25th, an Italian radio station received a mayday from a boat in trouble in the Ionian Sea. However, the alert came without coordinates, so all boats in the area are asked to keep a high level of attention. During the evening, a plane from Frontex (the agency for patrolling the Mediterranean Sea) spots and photographs the boat, determining that the vessel was full of people, all without life jackets. But from that moment until the shipwreck, no one intervened. If the Italian coast guard had launched a search and rescue operation, a chain of air and naval rescues would have been set in motion.

Instead, nothing happened.

It comes down to a lack of respect for human rights. A few days before the shipwreck, 187 votes from the Chamber of Deputies passed a decree placing further restrictions on rescue at sea, stipulating that humanitarian ships only carry out one rescue operation at sea per mission. To discourage multiple rescues, new administrative sanctions provided for fines of up to 50,000 euros and the seizure of the offending ship for organizations that are deemed to be out of line with the new code of conduct.

“If I were desperate, I would not leave,” the Italian Minister of the Interior said, when asked, during a conference held the day after the massacre, to put himself in the shoes of the migrants on that boat. “Because I was educated [about] responsibility… not to ask myself what I should expect from the country I live in, but what I can give.”

These words are not only misplaced, but chilling, especially considering that Italy is funding border control through the Libyan coast guard. In an automatically renewing three-year agreement called the Italy-Libya Memorandum, the Italian government sends economic aid and technical support to the Libyan authorities – the same authorities that torture thousands of people every year in lager-like centers – to reduce migratory flows. A 2021 Oxfam report on Italy’s military spending shows that the country has devoted half again as many funds to the coast guard that year as it had dedicated the year before, going from 10 million in 2020 to 10.5 million in 2021. “In total,” Oxfam says, “32.6 million have been allocated to the Libyan coast guard since 2017,” making the complete total of funds Italy has spent on missions in Libya 271 million.

Italy is also not the only one. The European Union signed an agreement with Egypt in 2022 to begin the first phase of a EUR 80 million border management program, with the aim of helping the Egyptian coast and border guards to reduce irregular migration and human trafficking along the border.

Paying people to stop departures from the North African coast will do nothing to stem the flow of migrants when the people you are paying are actually human traffickers who manage human movement through torture. In the report No One Will Look for You: Forced Return from Sea to Arbitrary Detention in Libya, Amnesty International has collected testimonies of violations and abuses in Libyan detention centers in 2021, including sexual violence against men, women, and children intercepted while crossing the Mediterranean and forcibly returned to centers in Libya. The same thing is being done on the east coast, where European funds are financing Turkey’s repressive government to block entry to the east. Turkey currently hosts the world’s highest number of migrants – almost 4 million, most of them Syrians – and is, of course, precisely from where those who perished in Sunday’s tragedy came.

Considering that Italy and the European Union are funding those who torture these migrants and drive them to seek freedom, it is inconceivable to blame the migrants in question for trying to escape their tragic situations. As the English poet Warsan Shire said, “No one puts his children on a boat unless the water is safer than the land.” In order to successfully regulate the migration crisis, Italy and the E.U. must end agreements with countries that pocket money for disrespecting human rights while failing to uphold their promises.

Oxfam proposes a series of direct actions to control migration without prioritizing the interests of the countries which profit off of creating these flows. First, the Bossi-Fini law should be refuted and regular entry channels for migrants seeking to enter Italy and the European Union should be extended. Second, a plan to evacuate people illegally detained in Libya should be drafted and approved. Third, a European naval mission should be created with the clear task of searching for and rescuing those at sea. Fourth, humanitarian organizations’ fundamental role in safeguarding human life at sea must be recognized and respected. Lastly, the Italy-Libya Memorandum should be terminated, with any future agreement being made conditional on the end of the country’s political transition phase, as well as necessary reforms to eliminate arbitrary detention and provide for adequate assistance and protection measures, in particular for migrants and refugees.

We can no longer stand by and watch as thousands of men, women, and children lose their lives. The lack of rescue for the Crotone shipwreck has underlined that we are becoming less and less human in the face of tragedy; preventing others from saving lives at sea, funding repressive governments on the claim that they will “prevent migration,” and closing our eyes to torture will not stop people from leaving. Despite Minister Piantendosi’s claims of “responsibility,” Italy has failed to uphold its duty to ensure migrants’ safety and dignity. Europe must find ways to manage its refugee crisis that make the lives of those who leave worthy of being called such.


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