Migrant deaths shine light on Europe’s harder line and broken promises
By Jason Horowitz and Gaia Pianigiani
A decade ago, a rickety trawler overstuffed with desperate migrants caught fire and capsized just off the coast of Italy, killing 368 men, women and children. In the aftermath, the European Union delivered tens of millions in financial aid to Italy, vowed to strengthen rescue operations and hammer out a more effective bloc-wide migration and asylum policy.
“We will do anything we can, with the means that we have, to change the situation,” José Manuel Barroso, then the president of the European Commission, said at the time.
But a horrific shipwreck Sunday about 100 yards from Italy’s Calabrian coast, which killed at least 63 people, including many children, has made it painfully clear that the situation has not changed. If anything, the bloc’s consensus against migrants has broadened and hardened.
Coastal nations have transitioned from an emphasis on search-and-rescue ships. Italy has talked of naval blockades, and Greece has secretly expelled refugees on inflatable and sometimes overburdened life rafts. European officials, while once again expressing sorrow over the weekend and making promises, have sought to outsource the issue, at great expense, to countries with worrisome human rights records across the sea.
All the while, asylum-seekers keep coming. Despite tough new measures by the hard-right Italian government of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose political rise was in part fueled by anti-migrant language, the number of arrivals to the country this year has increased sharply.
Migrant arrivals have returned to levels last seen in 2017, with 14,437 landing in Italy in the first two months of this year. It’s unclear what has driven the rise in numbers at a time in the year that has recently been relatively quiet.
But Sunday’s tragedy off the coast of Calabria, for which Meloni expressed “deep sorrow” and anger at the smugglers, has not created a political problem for her. Instead, it has increased calls from across the political spectrum for Europe to finally do something to address a challenge that promises to shape the continent’s immediate politics and long-term future.
“On immigration, Europe should probably do something more,” Matteo Piantedosi, Italy’s interior minister, said during a news conference late Sunday, adding, “It is fundamental to move from words to facts.” Piantedosi on Monday met with his French counterpart in Paris, where they agreed on a common agenda, including joint trips to Tunisia, and to make sending migrants back easier.
Meloni said on Italian television Monday evening that she had sent a letter to Brussels urging the European Union to “hurry up and act,” adding that to “face with seriousness and humanity” the migrant issue, it was necessary to “stop the departures.”
But even as countries call on Europe to finally address the issue, they have for years taken matters into their own hands and closed their once-open arms.
Greece, which has already cracked down on migration with a fence on its border with Turkey and denied that it is sending back migrants at sea, is ramping up land and sea patrols ahead of general elections expected in April “to protect European territory from illegal flows,” said the country’s migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, at a European conference on border security near Athens on Friday.
He added that arrivals in Greece were already down 80% since 2019, but that the country would effectively double the size of a nearly 40-kilometer (nearly 25-mile) fence along the Turkish border with or without EU funds.
In 2016, the European Union agreed to pay billions of euros to Turkey to shelter migrants who reached Turkish soil. The following year, the bloc, and Italy separately, struck a similar, if much smaller, deal with Libya, giving money, resources and training to officers in the Libyan coast guard — and tribal leaders — to prevent migrants from crossing. Many migrants have endured horrendous abuses there.
Survivors of Sunday’s shipwreck, who departed from Izmir in Turkey, have said that their destination was always Italy. But migrant advocates say the closed borders in Greece and along Eastern Europe, where Hungary has built a wall and Croatia and Serbia have violently pushed back migrants, have made the longer and often more treacherous journey to Italy the more viable option for migrants.
“This particular tragedy is the end result of all these border-guarding policies,” said Christina Psarra, who runs Greece’s Doctors Without Borders office.
Meloni has sought to force ships run by charities to rescue migrants and then return to an Italian port after each mission, limiting time at sea and the number of migrants they pick up. But the Ionian coastline where a blue fishing boat carrying at least 130 people broke apart on Sunday is not patrolled by those aid ships.
That doesn’t mean, however, that migrants have not been arriving there.
Last year, 18,000 of the 30,500 migrants who took the dangerous route from Turkey through the Aegean Sea landed in Italy.
“We are sad that people are only now talking about this route,” Roberto Occhiuto, the governor of the Calabria region, said on Italian television Monday, announcing that the region would observe a day of mourning for the 63 victims, as many towns in the area already had. He said he hoped that the tragedy would bring “renewed awareness by Europe regarding this problem.”
The southern Italian newspaper, Il Mattino, put it more succinctly.
“Where is Europe?” read a front-page headline Monday.
“Europe has now a chance to offer a humanitarian approach, which means making search and rescue a priority,” Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesperson with the International Organization for Migration, said Monday. “Such a rickety boat has sailed a long way. This shows that we need to strengthen the European patrolling and search-and-rescue system.”
Marco Bertotto, a top official at Doctors Without Borders in Italy, attributed the rise in deaths to the weakening of those patrols.
“When Italy and the EU had naval assets at sea, they increased their search-and-rescue capacity and diminished the likelihood of such tragedies,” he said.
The hundreds of lives lost in the shipwreck off the coast of Sicily in 2013 prompted a far-reaching Italian search-and-rescue mission for migrants in the Mediterranean. It lasted a year. It was replaced by less ambitious programs that morphed into border control. In the meantime, populist politicians, including Meloni, who has talked about “ethnic replacement,” constantly played on the fears of Italian voters by spreading videos of migrants acting criminally or arriving in throngs.
The issue became a clear loser for liberal politicians, who, seeing their numbers plummet, blamed Europe for leaving Italy out to dry and for opening the door to right-wing populists antagonistic to the bloc. By 2017, Italy’s center-left government itself began cracking down on charity ships for attracting migrants to sea.
In national elections last year, Italians made it clear that they preferred the harder line of the Italian right, but critics of those policies argued Monday that the loss of life on the Calabrian beach of Steccato di Cutro demanded a response beyond slamming doors shut.
“Those who think that the migration phenomenon can be addressed only by force or naval blockades should bow down before the lifeless body of this child who has been denied her future,” said Nicola Fiorita, the mayor of the Calabrian town of Catanzaro, referring to a dead girl, name unknown, who he said had become “a boulder on the conscience of all Europe.”