16 Oct 2013

Lampedusa: redefining Italy’s conscience on immigration

As Italy declares a state of emergency following the Lampedusa disaster, Channel 4 News asks if social attitudes towards immigration are changing.

A Lampedusa child's drawing shows the deadly asylum-seeker shipwreck (G)

Italy’s navy on Tuesday rescued about 370 migrants in the waters between Sicily and Libya as the government deployed ships, helicopters and unmanned drones to help avert further shipwrecks that have already drowned hundreds this month.

A naval frigate and a patrol boat brought some 290 people, mostly Syrians, Somalis and Eritreans, to the tiny southern Italian island of Lampedusa after two migrant vessels used satellite phones to dial for help late on Monday, the navy said.

Read more: Lampedusa survivors say Libyans shot holes in their boat

Last Friday, at least 34 more migrants drowned when their boat capsized, though Italian officials say the true figure may be above 200.

But it was the tragedy of the 3 October, costing the lives of at least 339 would-be migrants, that really put the issue in the headlines.

Lampedusa, which lies southwest of Sicily and just 70 miles (113km) from the coast of Tunisia, has been a stepping stone for migrants seeking a better life in Europe for two decades.

Humanitarian organisations say the new measures may leave more migrants stranded or delivered into the hands of Libyan militias and crime groups.

Bossi-Fini law

This is not the first time the Italian government has attempted to crack down on immigration. In 2002 the Italian government passed the Bossi-Fini law in an attempt to tackle the problem.

The law introduced heavy sanctions towards illegal immigrants arriving in the country and tightened the norms against the aiding and abetting of illegal immigrants.

Read more: Can flowers really hide Italy's race problem?

Under the law, immigrants found in international waters, formerly outside of the patrolling power of Italy, could be sent home.

Some Italians argue that the law contravenes Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948: “Every man is free to leave his land”.

Following the Lapmedusa disaster last week, Italian newspaper la Repubblica launched a petition to abolish the law. So far 70,000 have signed the petition, including influential Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi.

Mr Renzi said: “The law doesn’t work. It fuels fears amongst Italians.”

Editor of Corriere Della Sera supplement ‘Sette’, Pier Luigi Vercesi wrote: “Last week, something important and dramatic happened: hundreds of human beings who died (perusing) a dream of normality, opened up our consciousness and caused embarrassment.”

“I don’t believe that the solution is to relax our boarders… however I believe the Bossi-Fini law has had its time.”

Speaking about the immigration law, Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge, told the Corriere: “The law shouldn’t punish [refugees].

“We need to welcome them as people and to give them the opportunity to request political asylum.

Read more: Second migrant boat sinks near Italy's Lampedusa

“However, we need the support of the international community [to make this happen.]”

However, Ms Kyenge also argued that the number of economic migrants was on the decline. She added: “Because of our own crisis [in Italy] we predict that hundreds and thousands of immigrants are asking to go back to their own countries.

“This is happening around the world, even in the US, where they are experiencing reverse immigration to Mexico, Brazil and South Africa.”

Italian Minister for Integration Cecile Kyenge (L) talks with Lampedusa mayor Giusi Nicolini in Lampedusa (R)

Elsewhere, anti-austerity Five Star Movement leader and comedian Beppe Grillo went against his party (who are for changing the law) and said it would up open up Italy’s borders even further.

Mr Grillo wrote on his blog: “This wasn’t part of the programme that eight and a half million voters voted for.

“The content of this amendment is an invitation to emigrants from Africa and from the Middle East to set sail for Italy.

Read more: Lampedusa - what Europe can do to help

“The message they’ll get will be simply interpreted as saying ‘clandestinity is no longer a crime’.

“Lampedusa is close to collapsing and Italy’s not doing too well. How many clandestines can we welcome here if one in eight people here in Italy doesn’t have the money to eat?”

However, Five Star Movement Senator, Andrea Cioffi responded: “The law is disgusting.”

‘Life as a refugee’

In 2009, journalist Paola Pellai, wrote on the Northern League newspaper la Padania: “If I was to be reborn, I would want to be a refugee, that way I wouldn’t have to work hard for a mortgage or look for work.”

Political journalist Gian Antonio Stella hit back in an article on Saturday: “Life is comfortable as a refugee… do me a favour.

“Let’s say you’re an [Italian] family fleeing from the civil war in Somalia in 1991… that after a long journey between hardship, and hunger you manage to get a bit of money for a journey back to Italy.

“On that same boat, there are people, men, women and children, fleeing from Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia and that as soon as you feel close to being safe, to having a better future the boat suddenly stops and no one comes to your rescue – yes, life as a refugee really is comfortable.”

Read more: Up to 350 feared dead after Lampedusa boat disaster

However, journalist Beppe Severgnini wrote in the Corriere newspaper that the economic climate in Europe has meant that the Lampedusa tragedy was met with “indifference” by many European countries.

Europe is united by the currency – but not by a common conscience Beppe Severgnini, journalist

He said: “Each of the 28 member states is absorbed by their own worries: the deficit, youth unemployment, welfare reforms.

“Even with immigration, Greece looks at its border with Turkey, Germany and Poland look towards the east. The UK is also discussing immigration, but not from Africans and Syrians, but Romanians and Bulgarians, who from 1 January will be able to move freely in the EU.

“Yes, Europe is united by the currency – but not by a common conscience, and it’s the conscience that changes history.”