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The shipwreck disaster on October 3 2013, that saw the sinking a few miles off Lampedusa of a boat filled with over 500 immigrants and that has caused over 300 deaths, has brought back the attention, even of politicians for once, over the issue of illegal immigration. Words such as "shame" and "horror" have been widely used, but besides from feelings of disdain and resentment, the problem can be hardly solved.

The media circus over the October 3 events cannot overshadow similar recurrent incidents that have plagued the Mediterranean over the last few years. For what they are worth in a phenomena still lacking an exact evaluation, statistics state that around 8 to 10 thousand people have drowned while crossing the sea on their way to Europe. They could be many more, but it is hard to verify. The data is based on vague information, tales of survivors and bodies recovered from the sea.

Numbers are relatively important when taking into account a biblical exodus of people fleeing from their home countries to fulfill a dream or a hope, to escape from a war, to survive from a poverty without dignity. Just like all migrations caused by social despair, there is no way to stop them, nor adequate mean to face them.

An inconvenient position

Italy's geographical position puts it in first line and makes it the first landing point - in most cases a mere transit - for this multitude of hopeless people trying to reach Europe. Most of them come from sub-Saharan Africa. Among the different migrations, the Africans are the poorest, they lack the financial means to travel a safer route and thus risk their lives crossing the sea in crammed makeshift boats. Lampedusa and the southern coasts of Sicily are the terminal of these hope filled, or rather despair filled, trips.

Following social turmoil in north Africa and in the Middle East, the influx of migrants has returned at a very high level. The point of departure is usually Libya and, since the fall of Ben Ali, also Tunisia. During Muammar Gaddafi's reign, Libya used illegal immigrants as a tool to financially and politically blackmail Italy. During his first historical trip to Italy, it was the Rais himself that had stated: these immigrants are fleeing from misery (Gaddafi did not like the term asylum seekers or refugees) and we will send them all over to you. This meant he had no interest in keeping them in Libya and that if he had to he wanted something in exchange.

In fact, after the signature of the Italy-Libya treaty in 2008 and after receiving an adequate financial "compensation", the Libyan dictator declared his willingness to fight illegal immigration. The Italian Guardia di Finanza (the Financial police) sent in 3 military patrol boats (later they were raised to 6) to jointly control the Libyan coastline and to curb illegal immigration. The Italian Ministry of Interior sent police officers to Tripoli to link up with their local counterparts and an enormous flow of resources (money, vehicles, training courses, equipment etc.) was on its way to Libya. Overall, between 2008 and 2010 Libyans received around 60 million euros. The result was that Libya finally accepted the principle of repatriations, namely the idea that they would have taken back all those migrants intercepted at sea by both Italian and Libyan patrols.

The shameful repatriations

On May 6 2009 the first repatriation took place. The writer was present on Tripoli's commercial dock and was a direct witness of a human drama. The migrants didn't know they had been taken back to Libya and they initially reacted with stupor. Then it was pain. Some were crying, others thought of rebelling and tried to get off the Italian patrol boats. The Libyan security forces immediately began their abuses. They hit and whipped the most riotous. People were dragged off their boat and kicked into containers: one for women and one for men. Dehydrated men were left ailing on the dock, incapable of reacting or moving, simply exhausted. Besides them were pregnant women lying on the floor. No one cared to assist them. And all of these people simply disappeared, Italy did not care about their fate. They were thrown into Libyan detention centers, they had over 20 of them all over the country, and sent back to the hell they had tried to escape from.

Politicians in Italy had applauded as a success the deportation policy, a new tool in the fight against illegal immigrants, without realizing they should have been ashamed of themselves. They clearly kept all the questions on the destiny of these people to themselves. It was better not to know in order not to feel responsible for the abuses inflicted on these people. They went all the way to say that these migrants stopped at sea had never filed an asylum request (but they had not idea they were being brought back to Libya).

Then the civil war began, Muammar Gaddafi was killed and the country entered into a spiral of instability that is still without an end. The migrants Italy had deported found themselves inadvertently in the middle of a civil war. The fact that the Rais employed African mercenaries to fight the rebels added another burden on the migrants. Once the dictator was defenestrated, they were accused of having fought to save Gaddafi. Many were killed or abused, but this is a story very few are willing to talk about. Especially because the international coalition that had favored Gaddafi's downfall could not be delegitimated by the revenge taken by the rebels over the migrants. After all, this had been a fight for freedom and democracy, there was no room to talk about the violations perpetrated by the rebels against other fellow Libyans or on African migrants.

Back to business

Now that the situation in Libya has gradually gone back to normal, the human trafficking network is flourishing once more. We should always keep in mind that migration is not only a social plague, but a great international business. Despite the civil war in Libya, the clandestine migration structures were still in place in Sudan, where people gather before reaching the coasts on the Mediterranean. At that time, the criminal organizations managing the traffic dedicated their efforts to channeling Eritrean migrants towards the Sinai and towards Israel.

Given the current ongoing instability in Libya, with militias dictating their rule, the Libyan police without any coercive power and criminal groups (made up of people freed from jail during the civil war) still roaming around, has allowed traffickers to go back to business at a pace greater than in the past. The very same illegal structures Gaddafi once encouraged (when he had to blackmail Italy or Europe) are now fully operational. They have been favored by social chaos, endemic corruption reinforced by the civil war, the connections between criminals-militias-traffickers, police turning a blind eye (just like in the past) in the name of their share of the pie and the collusion of politicians (some government officials, maybe not by chance, come from the Zuwarah area, the so-called "capital" and main departure point of the boats filled with migrants).

The change in Libya's internal situation and in the contact people with which it used to dialogue, did not mutate how Italy wants to deal with illegal immigration. Rome still believes it is facing migrants and not refugees fleeing from wars or dictatorships. And it also still thinks that repatriations are part of the solution. Italian police officials are still on the ground (their number had been increased and then reduced due to security concerns). Five out of the six donated patrol boats have been sunk during the war, but there is now talk of fishing them out to re-start joint patrols. The influx of training courses, bilateral meetings, financing and largess is also back on track. The problem is now finding adequate and reliable partners with which to deal with in Libya.


Frontex, the useless

Hence, Italy still believes in a repressive approach when dealing with immigration. The statements on October 4 2013 by the Italian Minister of Interior, Angelino Alfano, during his visit to Lampedusa hinting to a strengthening of the activities of Frontex, the EU agency tasked with patrolling Europe's external borders, go in this direction. Frontex patrols the Mediterranean also to curb illegal immigration. A deployment of vessels, airplanes, helicopters and radars that, also due to the lack of effort and political attitude by most European countries, hardly produces any results.

But the problem is not the inefficiency of Frontex, but the overall approach in dealing with this issue. What the Italian Interior Minister said in Lampedusa was basically: a stronger Frontex will help diminish the number of immigrants at sea. Thus, less deaths. The equation is logical in its maths, but neglects the key issue. People's despair has no limits and will not stop the exodus of those ready to risk their lives on makeshift boats. These people are fleeing from conflicts and poverty, they cross the Libyan desert during the winter, whilst they go by sea in the summer. During their trip they face abuses, robberies, rapes, but still hope for a better tomorrow. They know what they are leaving behind - and this provides them with the strength to face the risks of this transhumance - but they don't know what they will find. It could be death, as has often happened, but it could also be marginalization.

And this is where the problem lies. Both Europe and Italy have to realize immigration cannot be eradicated with repression and with the policy of repatriations. Such a phenomena has to be dealt with in a framework respectful of both the rule of law and of the solidarity owed to all human beings affected by global crisis. In other words, immigration cannot be stopped, but solely piloted and addressed. Law n.189 of the 30th of July 2002, better known with the name of the two former Ministers who signed it, Umberto Bossi and Gianfranco Fini, envisages the introduction of the crime of illegal immigration and the expulsion of the clandestine. It is a law conceived along the "repressive" line (just like the repatriations) and whose limits are now evident. As already stated, this is a wrong approach that might even produce results in the short term, but fails to solve the issue in the long one.

But then, and this is the basic question, what can and should be done to solve this problem? If we cannot convince an illegal immigrant to avoid risking his life on a boat that could easily sink, if he cannot be repatriated because this would cause him more suffering, if one wants to avoid him being marginalized or live an illegal life once on European soil, what are we supposed to do?


The search for solutions

The solution lies mostly at a European level. The first thing to do should be a judicial initiative: a European law applying to all EU member states establishing a common legally defined path for the entrance of immigrants (this would once and for all define what is illegal and what is not), common citizenship and family reunion criteria, penalties for traffickers and the application of all those international safeguards for refugees and asylum seekers.

Secondly there should be common welfare assistance criteria: a displaced person cannot arrive in a country and be forced to live a marginalized or illegal existence. He needs to follow a path that leads to integration. He needs social assistance (to understand the rules of where he now lives, to speak the language etc.) and financial support until he is able to take care of himself. This already happens in several European countries, but not in all of them. Reception and integration standards should be aligned. Furthermore, the Dublin Convention, a juridical opprobrium binding asylum seekers to their first landing point - in this case Lampedusa and Italy - hindering their autonomous choice over their destiny, should be overcome. The end result is that refugees are once again pushed towards illegality, simply because they attempt to join relatives or friends in other EU member states.

A third form of intervention is also possible. And it is the once envisaged by Romano Prodi's government that had decided to create reception facilities for immigrants on Libyan soil. Italy had financed a hospital in Kufra, while similar structures never saw the light. The idea was that instead of assisting the migrants in Italy, it was better to do it in Libya. A probably utopian project that took for granted the Libyans' willingness and capability to address this issue and overestimated - in Gaddafi's days, just like today - their respect for human rights. There is still a portion of the Arab world's culture that perceives Africans as someone that can be exploited and despised. It is not racism, but pseudo-slavery. Prodi's project, although well conceived but realistically impossible to put into effect, raised the issue of the conditions of the immigrants before their sea trip.

Europe could do something similar, that is tackle the issue before solving it on its soil. If it's not possible to intervene in the countries of origin to prevent immigration (hard to think of negotiating in places like Somalia or Eritrea under dictator Isaias Afeworki), something could be done in the countries immigrants transit on. In Libya, for example, the local UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) bureau could (with EU financial support) select the asylum seekers or follow their applications to access the European zone. Under Gaddafi, the UN agency lacked the official recognition of the Libyan government (as stated previously, the Rais did not like the term "refugee"). Today it could be different.

Migrations require a mix of rule of law, solidarity, welfare, but mainly humanity. This is a phenomena that should be understood and not demonized. Room for repression should be reduced to a minimum. And foremost the approach should be enfranchised from the political rhetoric and the exploitation that usually come with it: both the ineffective "politically correct" fašade and the ill-concealed racist xenophobia.