“I don’t know how many more people need to die at sea before something gets done,” said Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat. “As things stand we are building a cemetery within our Mediterranean Sea.”
He was talking about the part of the Mediterranean between the North African coast and the two islands that are the closest bits of the European Union: the Italian island of Lampedusa and his own country, Malta. In the past two weeks, almost as many migrants have died in that narrow stretch of water – only 120 km. (80 miles) separate the Tunisian coast from Lampedusa – as died along the US-Mexican border in all of last year.
On the southern US border they mostly die of thirst in the desert; in the Mediterranean they drown. The migrants pay the people smugglers in Libya or Tunisia thousands of dollars each to make the crossing in small, unseaworthy, grossly overcrowded boats, but the smugglers don’t want to be arrested so they don’t go with them. They just hand over the keys to the migrants.
The refugees – more than half of the 32,000 who have reached Italy so far this year come from Syria, Somalia or Eritrea – have no experience at sea. The boats leak, they run out of fuel, they catch fire, and nobody knows what to do. Sometimes the boats just capsize when everybody rushes to the same side to call for help from a passing ship or aircraft.
Then they are in the water, and there are no lifejackets. Last week, when 359 Somali and Eritrean migrants drowned in a single boat, nobody even had a satellite phone to summon help. Most of the migrants can’t swim, and even those who can often drown before help arrives. Every sinking brings stories of parents who could swim, but had to choose which children to save.
“For us it’s intolerable that the Mediterranean is a sea of the dead,” said Prime Minister Enrico Letta of Italy on Monday, announcing that his country is tripling its air and naval presence in the death zone. But as Interior Minister Angelino Alfano warned, “It’s not a given that the intervention of an Italian ship will mean that migrants are taken to an Italian port.”
They don’t want the migrants to die, but they don’t want them to stay in Italy either. As in other European Union countries, the flood of migrants from Africa and the Middle East is fuelling a powerful anti-immigrant backlash. And the brutal truth is that the safer the EU countries make the Mediterranean crossing, the more people will try to come.
Most of the migrants currently risking their lives are genuine refugees, but behind them, in the vast sweep of countries from West Africa to Somalia and Iraq, there are several hundred million others who would leap at the chance of moving to Europe. So the stark reality is that the EU will never make it so easy and safe to get in that even a small fraction of that vast reservoir of would-be migrants actually tries to make the journey.
Stable governments in Tunisia and Libya could stop the boats from leaving their shores, but that will not happen any time soon. In the meantime, people will go on drowning in the Mediterranean, although hopefully in smaller numbers than the catastrophe of the last few weeks.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.