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And it’s not just politicians who are concerned. Pope Francis has regularly addressed the matter, saying in April: “We must not tire in our attempts to solicit a more extensive response at the European and international level.” He called on Christians to remember that “these are men and women like us, brothers seeking a better life” and he urged world leaders to “act decisively and quickly to stop these tragedies from recurring”. The Pope’s words emphasised that the crisis is, first and foremost, a humanitarian disaster.

What is the civilised solution to this ever-increasing problem? The crisis stretches beyond the treacherous voyages across the Mediterranean. What happens to the lucky few who reach the Italian island of Lampedusa, Sicily or mainland Italy? 

I asked a Sicilian about the domestic reaction to the problem. The Italians are “very angry,” he said, “furious”. Italy is in the throes of an economic crisis, with youth unemployment at 43 per cent. They simply do not have the infrastructure to support the migrants, each one of whom costs the Italian government between 35 and 43 euros per day. Predictably, there is a lot of blame being passed around. The Italians blame Europe for failing to assume collective responsibility for what they believe to be a European, not a purely Italian problem.

The blame isn’t solely directed towards the failure of EU member states to act collaboratively, but also towards the British and the French for helping to overthrow Colonel Gaddafi in October 2011. It is true that, while Gaddafi’s rule over Italy’s former colony was brutal, there were fewer ships leaving Libya for Italy before he was deposed. In August 2008, Gaddafi signed a treaty between Italy and Libya, with then-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi,  declaring that the two countries would work together to return all illegal migrants found at sea. The result? European Commission figures show that in 2008 32,052 people were caught trying to enter Italy. In 2009, after the signing of the treaty, this figure fell to 7,300.

Then there was Mare Nostrum, the eye-wateringly expensive search and rescue mission launched in October 2013. Mare Nostrum cost the EU 9 million euros a month and saved more than 150,000 lives during the year that it ran. The operation undoubtedly decreased the loss of human life, but the general consensus in Italy is that it acted as a green light to the refugees, who, upon being saved, were taken into Italy and therefore the EU. Something similar would decrease the number of migrants drowned that in  Mediterranean waters, but wouldn’t solve the problem. In 2014, Italy decriminalised undocumented immigration, a move that was seen to further encourage North African migrants to its shores.

If current trends continue, the number of boat people landing on Italian territory will surpass last year’s figures significantly. Many believe that the ships carrying these people should be destroyed. Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s UN ambassador, recently weighed in saying that destroying the vessels would be “going too far”. Media loudmouth Katie Hopkins added fuel to the fire by asserting that we should “make no mistake, these migrants are like cockroaches . . . once gunships have driven them back to their shores, boats need to be confiscated and burned on a huge bonfire.” Her characteristically poisonous provocations were met with outrage,  but her argument nods in the direction of Australia, which last year introduced a law that allows it to turn away boats carrying asylum seekers from Australian shores, when it is considered “safe to do so”. The numbers of refugees reaching Australia dropped substantially. However, such policies neglect our moral duty to refugees so desperately and dangerously trying to escape horrors that we cannot begin to imagine.

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August 27th, 2015
3:08 PM
The Italian navy operation "saved more than 150,000 lives during the year that it ran" No. They picked up that number of people and ferried them to Europe. Not the same thing. We should be following the Australian example asap.

Alexander Barry
May 29th, 2015
3:05 AM
This is a very good analysis of the current situation but it does seem that there is no solution other than supporting stabilization in the countries of origin. It also opens the bigger question of why the western powers advocate the free movement of goods but not the free movement of people....

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