Breaching Fortress Europe: Despite the Downturn, Migrants Brave Fatal Crossing

Though the tide of illegal migration to Europe ebbed in 2012, many seeking work in richer countries are still attempting a dangerous, deadly journey

  • Share
  • Read Later
Italian Coast Guard / AP

Migrants are rescued by Italian Coast Guard officials, on the coasts of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, southern Italy, Aug. 18, 2012.

There are many ways to die when trying to breach what Italian journalist Gabriele Le Grande calls “Fortress Europe.” Migrants are shot by border guards in Ceuta, die of thirst in the Sahara, freeze in the mountains of Gurpinar, drown in the Oder River, or perish in the Evros minefields. But the 90-mile wide Strait of Sicily between Tunisia and the Italian islands is the single deadliest obstacle. In 2011, over 50,000 migrants tried to cross the narrow strip of the Mediterranean; 2,200 of those died or went missing.

This year, however, an uneasy calm has settled over the strait. There have been less than 1,500 arrivals in Italy this year, as North Africa stabilized and the Eurozone crisis dimmed the lure of work. When a group of 400 migrants arrived at Lampedusa—the island south of Sicily that catches a majority of boat traffic—in mid-August, the most remarkable thing was, well, how remarkable it was. Arrivals of that size were a common occurrence last year. Now they are outliers.

In Sicily, the big question is whether this pax mediterranea is real, or whether the seas will fill again with migrants if the new governments of North Africa falter. “The situation is changing really, really fast,” says Le Grande. There are no guarantees, he says, that the worst days won’t come back.

(More from Roads & Kingdoms: Sicily, the Red Sauce Diaries)

A major factor, of course, is the Eurozone crisis. The jobs that used to lure migrants across the strait just aren’t there. In Italy, which was the final destination for about 25% of the migrants crossing the strait, the economy is in a tailspin. As factories in the north shut down, many earlier migrants are trickling back south to Sicily, where, as researcher Judith Gleitze of Borderline Europe points out, the large black market offers more piecemeal jobs and a chance to live without papers. But in Sicily, competition for those menial jobs is increasing, pitting the newest arrivals against those migrants who have been there longer. “It’s the poor against the even more poor,” says Gleitze. Many of those earlier arrivals will qualify for a limited amnesty being offered in September by the Italian government: if you can prove a lengthy residency in Italy, along with current employment, then you will get legal papers. As many as 100,000 people might apply, says Le Grande.

Paolo Cuttita, who teaches border studies at the University of Palermo, says that politics, more than economics, have long determined what happens in the Strait. The numbers often ebbed and flowed according to Gaddafi’s political needs in Libya. If he wanted concessions from Italy, he would simply allow a wave of migrants to leave Libya and swamp Italy’s shores (smuggling rings were often closely controlled by the Libyan government). One such wave in 2004 stopped only when Italy’s premiere Silvio Berlusconi signed a huge pipeline deal with Libya, one of the earliest breaks in the European efforts to embargo Gaddafi. “He used migrants to get what he wanted,” says Cuttita.

In 2009, Gaddafi signed another border cooperation deal that Italian politicians had hoped would allow them to automatically deport anyone caught in international waters. A European Court recently ruled that Italy’s insta-deportations were illegal, and that they had to determine the asylum status of anyone they pick up, even in international water. But that agreement caused many migrants to look for new routes into Europe overland through the Middle East.

(More from Roads & Kingdoms: Keith Dannemiller’s photoessay on Mexico City’s Saint of Lost Causes)

The new governments in Tunisia and Libya have both signed similar agreements with the Italians to help keep migrant traffic down. But North Africa’s biggest chance to help to staunch the boat crisis is to offer a future for their people at home. Le Grande says it’s happening already. “The southern shore of the Mediterranean is changing. Before everyone just wanted to leave the country, to go away,” he says. “[Now] many people believe in the future of these countries. They’re coming back.”

Samuel Cheung, a UNHCR Senior Protection Officer based in Libya, cautions that the new national pride of North Africans has not stopped other Africans from making the dangerous trip by boat. Libya in particular has what he calls a “push factor” for migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. “It’s very difficult to be a sub-Saharan African in Libya today,” he says. Migrants face everything from shootings to theft to unpaid wages. They are still suspected of having been part of the African mercenary corps used by Gaddafi. The majority of the estimated 600,000 people who fled Libya during the fighting were Sub-Saharan Africans, says Le Grande. Tunisians and Egyptians are now doing the jobs the Africans used to do. And then there’s the threat of arrest detention from the various qatibas—armed militias—who maintain their own detention facilities throughout Libya. One of UNHCR’s basic missions in Libya is to find out who is being held where, so they can provide services.

“Libyans don’t want to be a waypoint for Africans to Europe,” says Le Grande, “basically because they hate Africans. And human smuggling is seen as a part of the activity of the [Gaddafi] regime.”

Little surprise, then, that for many Africans who find themselves in post-revolution Libya, the only option is to keep moving. Overall boat traffic is down, but those who do cross the Strait are, says Cheung, the most desperate.

(More from Roads & Kingdoms: Meeting (the Other) Joe Paterno)

“It’s not uncommon to find 10 to 20 pregnant women on a boat with 60 people,” says Cheung. “Not surprising to see boats that have old men, children, people with untreated gunshot wounds.” Most of these migrants, says Cheung, are from the Horn of Africa—Somalis, Eritreans, Ethiopians.

When news recently broke that one of Somalia’s best female athletes, runner Samia Yusuf Omar, had died in April trying to cross from Libya to Italy in order to start training in Europe before the Olympics, it was just the latest in a series of high-profile Somalis who took to the seas, says Le Grande “In Italy, we saw first division football players coming [across the Strait],” he says. “We saw journalists, professors, people you don’t expect to take this dangerous routes. The visa policy gives them no other choice.”

And therein lies the best answer to whether or not the Straits will fill with migrants again: perhaps it doesn’t matter. Earlier this month, Egyptian border guards shot three Eritreans trying to head into Israel from the Sinai. The new migration routes through the Middle East won’t be less dangerous than the Strait of Sicily if governments decide to simply shoot migrants. Even in the economic crisis, Europe’s toughest, lowest-paying jobs are still done by immigrants. But without a visa policy that acknowledges that fact, the would-be workers will continue to risk everything to cross Fortress Europe’s high walls and deep moats.

This post is in partnership with Roads & Kingdoms, a new journal of food, travel and foreign correspondence. You can read their full Sicily series here.