Italy on the spot over treatment of boat migrants
The (Hamburg, Germany) Deutsche Presse-Agentur
ROME — The tough times are not over for migrants undertaking life-threatening voyages on the Mediterranean Sea to flee poverty, repression and civil war even as their boats near Italy's shores.
If they reach land, they could find themselves in overcrowded reception centres, and Italian authorities have faced criticism in recent weeks that they have exposed Horn of Africa migrants to harassment from Eritrean regime officials.
International institutions, such as the UN agency for refugees and the Council of Europe human rights watchdog, have said Italy lacks appropriate facilities to assist people in need of international protection.
But as was highlighted by hundreds of deaths last month, those migrants could very well not make it to shore.
If they get into trouble while still at sea, for instance, fishermen might balk at rescuing them out of fear of being investigated for abetting illegal migration and having their boats impounded.
Survivors of the worst shipwreck in recent European history, in which more than 360 people died October 3 off the Italian island of Lampedusa, said other boats nearby did not help.
They were "approached by two vessels, one of which circumnavigated their boat, so it saw the conditions they were in," Father Mussie Zerai, a Rome-based priest, said survivors told him.
The migrants on board, most of whom were Eritreans, flashed lights at the nearby vessels and called for help, but the vessels left, said Zerai, an unofficial spokesman for Eritrean exiles.
Calls have multiplied to ease migration laws passed by the former government of Silvio Berlusconi, but the current grand coalition government, which includes Berlusconi's party, is deeply split over the issue.
"We need an inquiry to clarify who was on those vessels, if they were fishermen or if it was the navy or the coast guard who saw but did not do anything," Zerai said.
The vessels sailed near the migrant boat about 3 am, less than 1 kilometre off Lampedusa, where thousands of undocumented migrants arrive in the European Union each year. Emergency services eventually intervened about dawn, by which time, many people had already died.
Zerai lamented that Italian magistrates who are investigating shipwreck survivors for illegal border entry have yet to open an investigation on the survivors' tale.
"We are checking with lawyers what we can do to press" them, he said.
The Lampedusa tragedy was followed by an October 11 shipwreck off Malta, in which at least 38 people died, prompting Italy to step up sea and air patrols to prevent more accidents.
But even when navy vessels come to help, migrants might not be safe, according to the La Repubblica newspaper. It wrote Thursday that cash and jewels worth more than 100,000 euros (136,000 dollars) were stolen from 95 Syrians whom Italian sailors rescued October 25.
"Marines searched us and made us go through a metal detector," La Repubblica quoted an unnamed migrant as saying in a complaint to Italian police. "They asked us to hand over our personal belongings, which would be given back to us as soon as we disembarked."
"There was a numbered bag for each of us, but when they made us disembark the boat, my bag, like many others, had been ripped and almost all the dollars and a few gold items had been snatched," the migrant said.
Migrants reportedly lost 3,000 to 5,000 dollars each plus rings, bracelets and necklaces. Those amounts of money are what would-be asylum seekers typically pay to human traffickers to reach Europe.
The navy did not deny the allegations. It said civilian and military magistrates were verifying the La Repubblica report and it had launched an internal inquiry.
As it faces mounting criticism over its treatment of migrants, Italy has fired back that the European Union should step into the fray. It has complained that it and Malta were being left alone on immigration's frontline.
The issue was to have taken centre stage at an EU summit last month but was overshadowed by revelations on US spying. The leaders promised "determined action" as a recently established task force is scheduled to report back with concrete proposals in December.
Critics said the leaders were delaying much-needed action and endangering more lives.
In the meantime, migrants have continued to die and arrive. The numbers to land in Italy this year has nearly tripled so far this year.
According to government data, 36,278 migrants landed by boat in Italy this year as of October 24, compared with 13,245 over the course of 2012.