The sea glistened in the dusk half-light as our propeller plane buzzed in a wide arc above Palermo bay. Stark promontory drops along the craggy coastline of northern Sicily gave the scene a certain majesty.
But the apparent serenity masks a bleak human tragedy that has been unfolding in the central Mediterranean. The waters between Sicily and North Africa have already claimed around 1,700 lives this year, as the epicentre of Europe’s growing migrant and refugee crisis.
When we landed in Lampedusa, 190 miles to the south, we should have seen locals busily preparing for the summer holiday season. After all, the tiny island has many assets – the people are friendly; the locally caught seafood is plentiful; the beaches are unspoilt and uncrowded.
“L’Isola Bella”, boasts a sign above the tourist office on a main pedestrian street in the town’s centre. The beautiful island.
“L’Isola Bella” - the beautiful island - boasts a sign above the tourist office on a main pedestrian street
in Lampedusa's centre. © Amnesty International
But locals told us they worry that this beauty has been tainted by the lingering shadow of death. Journalists throng the island and the newspapers and airwaves are saturated by stories and analysis about the latest migrant tragedy at sea.
Given Lampedusa’s location – around 70 nautical miles from Tunisia, between Libya and the Italian mainland – it sits astride Europe’s busiest sea migration route.
People fleeing armed conflict, persecution and other hardship in sub-Saharan Africa, Syria, Palestine, and elsewhere are in ever greater numbers entrusting their lives to ruthless people-smugglers in an attempt to reach Europe.
In 2014, more than 170,000 people arrived on Italy’s shores. The same year, around 3,500 died – from drowning, hypothermia and other causes – or disappeared at sea, making this the world’s deadliest sea crossing.
The first few months of 2015 have seen a 100-fold increase in deaths at sea, compared to the same period last year.
All indications are that the number attempting to reach Europe will continue to rise. And unless more is done to bolster search-and-rescue, so will the death toll, turning the Mediterranean into a mass grave.
According to Lampedusa’s mayor Giusi Nicolini, fears about this spiralling death toll have scared off tourists, a key driver of the local economy.
She says the islanders are getting fed up of the bad press and European leaders’ failure to take adequate action to stem the crisis.
“We have to govern this process rather than letting shipwrecks use natural selection to decide who arrives and who doesn’t,” Nicolini told us. “It is unacceptable to condemn people to die at sea just because they are black.”
Last year’s death toll would likely have been much higher if not for Mare Nostrum – a search-and-rescue operation set up by the Italian Navy in October 2013.
It was Italy’s response to what was, at that time, the country’s deadliest shipwreck, a few hundred metres off Lampedusa’s coast.
The boat in that game-changing tragedy caught fire and sank with more than 500 migrants aboard, mainly Eritreans and Somalis.
The images of dead bodies floating in the water and the spectre of hundreds of lives at risk sparked a global outcry. Everyone from the UN Refugee Agency to the European Commission to the Vatican called for urgent action to prevent similar tragedies in the future.
The Italian Government responded: within 15 days the Italian Navy deployed within its Operation Mare Nostrum – “our sea” – to assist boats in distress and to combat people-smuggling and trafficking.
Under Mare Nostrum, five Italian Navy ships were ready to act at any time, supported by air units and around 900 staff. Its operational area reached up to 100 nautical miles south of Lampedusa, placing help closer to the area off Libya’s coast where most of the shipwrecks take place.
This push to save more lives worked. Over the course of the next year, Mare Nostrum helped to rescue more than 166,000 people, amid a massive surge in those making the perilous sea crossing.
But around Europe, some raised eyebrows at such unilateral efforts, arguing they were encouraging people to cross. Meanwhile in Italy, others complained that the country should not have to bear Mare Nostrum's cost alone. It was phased out towards the end of 2014 and replaced by Triton, a pan-Europe border control operation with a mandate to work within 30 nautical miles of Italy’s coastline. People kept coming, despite the bad weather and the closure of Mare Nostrum – which entailed a drastic scaling back of search-and-rescue capacity in the central Mediterranean, with catastrophic results.
Deadly shipwrecks and incidents at sea have become ever more commonplace since Mare Nostrum ended. In a single horrific event on 20 April, around 820 migrants and refugees are believed to have died when a trawler capsized and sank. The UN Refugee Agency said it was the deadliest incident it had ever recorded in the Mediterranean.
Lampedusa’s coast guard station still responds valiantly to distress calls. They are “sempre presente” to save lives, the commander, Capitano di Corvetta Salvatore di Grande, told us.
But all they have at their disposal are four small search-and-rescue boats moored in Lampedusa’s harbour. These each comfortably fit around 40-50 people on board, though they’ve had to cram in up to 110 in cases of emergency.
Lampedusa’s coast guard station still responds valiantly to distress calls, but the crisis far outstrips their
ability to help. © Amnesty International
The crisis far outstrips their ability to respond. On a recent weekend, they received 20 separate SOS calls. Passing merchant vessels – which are not equipped for search-and-rescue operations – are increasingly being relied on to fill the gaps left by Mare Nostrum’s demise.
The surge in refugees and migrants seeking protection and a decent life in Europe has brought a constant flow of people through Lampedusa.
When we visited the reception centre for migrants and refugees late last week, there were 263 people inside.
A social worker at the centre told us that, just days before, there had been more than 1,400 rescued migrants and refugees crammed into this small facility, designed to house only around 380 for short periods before they are taken to larger centres around Sicily. It was so overcrowded that many people had to sleep in the open air. A stack of mattresses still piled up to the roof in a back corner of the centre was testament to this.
Lampedusa's reception centre is designed to shelter around 380 people, but a social worker told us it had
recently housed more than 1,400 at one time. © Amnesty International
Those we saw inside the centre came from many countries – Nigeria, Somalia, Eritrea, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Guinea, Senegal. During our visit, a group of teenage boys started an impromptu football match in the courtyard, using water bottles and rocks as goalposts. Many shouted in French or their national languages. Small conflicts erupted, and then dissipated, over perceived fouls.
Groups of boys and men and a small number of women sat on the side-lines, watching or staring into oblivion. A small Eritrean child no older than four played with a social worker. He laughed and scribbled on my notepad but didn’t utter a word. It was unclear if there was anyone there who would understand him.
Some bystanders chatted freely with us when we approached. Others seemed aloof, detached, and traumatized by their ordeal. A social worker told our team that two women in particular should be left alone.
Ali, a 15-year-old boy from Somalia, shared his story. Orphaned at a young age amid his country’s conflict, he decided to set out for Europe in a journey funded by a friend’s father. He explained how, in a three-month odyssey, he crossed the Sahara with people-smugglers, had to bury his friend in the desert, witnessed a gory explosion in Libya, and then got trapped in an unseaworthy boat on the high seas.
It took six hours for help to arrive after his small boat started leaking air. He described it as “the worst moment of my life”. More than 70 people were crammed into the doomed vessel, including 22 with serious burn injuries.
“I felt like I was born again,” Ali said after his rescue. Thousands of others in his situation never make it out of the sea alive.
Restart the rescue
Perhaps the most incredible thing about the exponential rise in deaths in the central Mediterranean is how easy it would be for Europe to halt it.
“It took us little more than a weekend to organize [Mare Nostrum]. The Italian Navy stands ready,” Navy Commander Massimiliano Lauretti previously told Amnesty International. “We have well-rehearsed procedures. We have built our experience. If we are asked, we can re-start a humanitarian operation in …48-72 hours.”
What’s lacking is political will. Last month's emergency summit in Brussels to try to tackle the Mediterranean crisis only met the problem halfway.
Funds for Operation Triton are now to be tripled, but the fact remains that this will not address the search-and-rescue needs in the central Mediterranean, particularly because Triton is currently deploying assets too close to Europe’s shores. What’s needed is a humanitarian operation to patrol the high seas mid-way between Lampedusa and Libya, where most of the deaths occur.
The indifferent sea
Once again airborne and leaving Lampedusa behind us for now, a grey mist quickly shrouded the scrubland around the tiny airport. Propellers whirling, we pulled up and away, and the view below was soon engulfed by opaque blue on all sides.
It was hard not to think how this vast sea’s indifference to the human tragedy it hosts is not all that far removed from European political leaders’ callous indifference to the suffering they have it in their power to stop.