Left to die in the Mediterranean

May 18, 2011

Nicole Colson reports on the case of dozens of African migrants who died because they were left adrift on a boat in the Mediterranean Sea.

"WHEN THE entire international community almost unanimously says that there is a potential humanitarian crisis about to take place, we can't simply stand by with empty words; we have to take some sort of action."

That was what Obama told reporters in late March, justifying the U.S. and NATO intervention in Libya.

But "stand by" is exactly what Western powers did earlier this month when dozens of African migrants, fleeing the Libyan capital of Tripoli for the Italian island of Lampedusa, were left to drift in the Mediterranean Sea for 16 days while their pleas for help were ignored.

In all, some 63 of the 72 passengers on board died from thirst and hunger--including women, young children and political refugees, according to an investigation in Britain's Guardian newspaper. "Every morning we would wake up and find more bodies, which we would leave for 24 hours and then throw overboard," said Abu Kurke, one of only nine survivors. "By the final days, we didn't know ourselves...everyone was either praying or dying."

Dozens of refugees attempting to flee Libya on an ill-equipped boat
Dozens of refugees attempting to flee Libya on an ill-equipped boat

European military units, including a NATO ship, ignored distress calls from the small boat, according to survivors.

The boat left Tripoli on March 25, with passengers from Ethiopia, Sudan, Nigeria, Ghana and other countries. After 18 hours at sea, it began losing fuel. According to the Guardian:

The migrants used the boat's satellite phone to call [Father Moses Zerai, an Eritrean priest in Rome who runs the refugee rights organization Habeshia]...who in turn contacted the Italian coast guard. The boat's location was narrowed down to about 60 miles off Tripoli, and coast guard officials assured Zerai that the alarm had been raised and all relevant authorities had been alerted to the situation.

Soon, a military helicopter marked with the word "army" appeared above the boat. The pilots, who were wearing military uniforms, lowered bottles of water and packets of biscuits and gestured to passengers that they should hold their position until a rescue boat came to help. The helicopter flew off, but no rescue boat arrived.

The Italian coast guard claims that the nation of Malta was advised that the boat was heading into that country's search-and-rescue zone, which would have required the country to attempt a rescue under international law. But Maltese authorities deny this.

After hours of waiting and with fuel in short supply, the ship's captain decided to try to head toward Lampedusa. Before they could reach the island, however, the boat ran out of fuel on March 27 and began to drift in the currents.

Days later, the current carried the boat close to an aircraft carrier. According to the Guardian, the boat was:

so close that it would have been impossible to be missed. According to survivors, two jets took off from the ship and flew low over the boat while the migrants stood on deck, holding the two starving babies aloft. But from that point on, no help was forthcoming. Unable to maneuver any closer to the aircraft carrier, the migrants' boat drifted away. Shorn of supplies, fuel or means of contacting the outside world, they began succumbing one by one to thirst and starvation.

The aircraft carrier was likely the French ship Charles de Gaulle, according to the Guardian, which was operating in the Mediterranean on those dates. French officials initially denied that the ship was in the region at the time--a claim later exposed as a lie.

Over the next 10 days, the majority of the passengers died. "We saved one bottle of water from the helicopter for the two babies, and kept feeding them even after their parents had passed," Kurke, who survived by drinking his own urine and eating tubes of toothpaste, told the Guardian. "But after two days, the babies passed, too, because they were so small."

When the boat finally washed ashore on the Libyan coast at the town of Zlitan on April 10, only 11 people were alive. One of the survivors died almost immediately, and another would die in the custody of Libyan government forces, who detained the remaining survivors for four days after they finally washed ashore.

The remaining survivors are now, according to the Guardian, hiding out in the house of an Ethiopian in the Libyan capital of Tripoli--and still desperate to reach the European mainland for a chance at asylum.

THESE DEATHS are an indictment of the Western powers' claims that the NATO war on Libya is about "saving lives." That at least three separate governments were aware of the ship's predicament and did nothing speaks to how little they actually care about human life--not to mention the fact that the same governments considered Libya's Muammar el-Qaddafi an ally at the beginning of the year.

For his part, Qaddafi promotes himself as a champion of African solidarity, but his regime has long relied on African migrants from sub-Saharan Africa as low-wage workers--and now mercenaries in the war against the uprising. In the 1990s, nearly 1 million migrants from other African countries came to Libya to fill the demand for cheap labor.

As Rayyan Ghuma noted in SocialistWorker.org, "Libyan officials consciously stoked tensions between native and foreign workers, accusing migrants of engaging in black-market dealings, running financial scams, operating brothels, dealing drugs and producing alcohol illegally."

Qaddafi has also long exploited the threat of a flood of African migrants into Europe, aimed at Italy in particular. During a recent trip to Italy, Qaddafi said in a speech given in Rome:

We don't know what will happen, what will be the reaction of the white and Christian Europeans faced with this influx of starving and ignorant Africans...We don't know if Europe will remain an advanced and united continent, or if it will be destroyed, as happened with the barbarian invasions.

Such a disgusting attempt to use racism against African migrants in order to manipulate the West has been somewhat effective, particularly in Italy. Ghuma notes, for example, that Qaddafi "collaborated with the right-wing government of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to 'warehouse' African migrants looking to escape political persecution or economic squalor."

Today, such racism is having a brutal impact on Africans desperately seeking asylum in Europe.

The Italian island of Lampedusa has long been a destination for desperate North African asylum seekers, who try to gain entry to the European Union through the island. In 2008 alone, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, some 36,952 refugees reached Italian shores--picked up by the Italian coast guard or landing directly in Lampedusa, often in makeshift vessels.

But for years, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's conservative government, facing a sharpening economic crisis, has scapegoated the country's immigrant population and asylum seekers--in particular those who seek entry through Lampedusa--to deflect anger from the government's assault on social services. As the Sydney Morning Herald noted in 2009:

[T]he hypocrisy of this rhetoric could not be more glaring. Italy has long benefited from the floods of immigrants ordered to leave the country, closing its eyes as they are allowed to disappear into the south to become the cheap labor that keeps the region's agricultural sector moving. The African illegal immigrants, known to locals as "i clandestine," pick the fruit and vegetables that feed Italy's rich, industrial north.

This includes African migrants in Southern Italian towns like Rosarno, where, early last year, racist attacks on migrant workers sparked days of rioting and the wholesale expulsion of hundreds of Arab and African migrants from the town.

IN THE past four months, some 30,000 refugees from locations in North Africa, including Tunisia and Libya, have fled to Europe across the Mediterranean, often on poorly equipped ships. At least 800 are estimated to have died along the way when their boats sank--but the real number of dead remains unknown.

In March, Berlusconi personally flew to Lampedusa to oversee the "relocation" of some 6,200 North African refugees--after local residents began staging protests, including using fishing boats to attempt to stop ships carrying rescued immigrants from coming into port.

The small reception camp for refugees on the island is only meant to house up to 800 people at a time, but is now incredibly overcrowded in the wake of the recent wave of refugees. A report from the German magazine Der Spiegel in February described:

For the moment, the situation on Lampedusa remains peaceful, but that could rapidly change. The tiny island is around nine kilometers long and three kilometers wide, and home to 6,000 people. That population was almost doubled by the massive influx of refugees last weekend. It looks almost as if the entire island has become a camp. Refugees sit between building ruins and on the beach. They smoke on the playground and on rocks overlooking the sea. They are waiting--to leave, to get papers, to experience a better life.

According to BusinessWeek, Berlusconi's trip in March was meant to personally assure local residents that the island would not become a permanent refuge for those fleeing political upheaval in Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere.

According to reports, five Italian ships were sent to the island, with plans to forcibly "repatriate" 1,000 Tunisian immigrants and "distribute" the remaining refugees to locations across mainland Italy.

The far right is using the crisis to stoke racism against these immigrants. Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, for example, a member of the far-right, anti-immigrant Northern League, has warned of what he calls a "biblical exodus" of North Africans to Europe.

Foreign Minister Franco Frattini--a former Italian Socialist Party member who now belongs to the center-right People of Freedom Party--told reporters that some 15,000 Tunisians had come to Italy this year as of late March, fuming that "they are not refugees, these Tunisians--they are simply economic immigrants." The remarks were calculated to quash the idea that those fleeing North Africa because of political turmoil should have a right to permanent residence in Italy or elsewhere in Europe.

But governments that support the bombing of Libya on "humanitarian" grounds should accept refugees fleeing the conflict they are a part of. The borders should be opened to allow African refugees a home--and those who ignored the cries for help from the refugees stranded in the Mediterranean, leaving 63 people to die, must be held accountable for their crimes.

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