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Perilous Journey of Migrants to Europe

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Sadly, this is how far too many migrants arrive on Lampedusa.

Sadly, this is how far too many migrants arrive on Lampedusa.

Reaching Europe After Perilous Journey

The Italian island of Lampedusa is 70 miles (112 km) from the coast of Africa at Libya. For thousands of desperate migrants, it’s their first landfall in Europe—that’s if they are lucky enough to survive the incredible dangers of their journeys.

The Journey to Libya

In most recent years, more than 150,000 sub-Saharan Africans have been applying for asylum in Europe annually. These are the ones that survive the hazardous journey from their homes. They are fleeing conflict, corruption, human rights abuses, and extreme poverty.

The trek involves shady people traffickers who sometimes abuse the migrants or hold them hostage until a ransom is paid by their families.

First, they must cross the Sahara Desert, an obstacle that takes many lives. They pile into the cargo beds of pick-up trucks and are driven past the skeletons and bodies of those who didn’t make it.

Most head for Libya because from there the sea crossing to Europe is one of the shortest. But in Libya, they might easily fall into the clutches of gangs who prey on them and take what little money they might have. If they have no money, they may be auctioned off in a slave market.

The Sea Crossing

Having negotiated all these perils, the would-be migrant now needs a boat. Some of them climb into inflatable rafts that are wholly unsuitable for use in the open waters of the Mediterranean. Others hitch a ride in old, wooden fishing boats that are no longer suitable for their original purpose because of rotting boards or holes in their hulls.

Whatever the craft, they are always grossly overloaded, and tragedies are frequent.

Many who set out on the crossing to Lampedusa are intercepted (although rescued is a better word) by Italian Coast Guard vessels or ships operated by charities; the passengers had little chance of making landfall in their decrepit boats.

In 2019, informigrants.net reported that “The Mediterranean crossing continues to be the deadliest migrant route worldwide: 19,000 migrants have been reported dead or missing since October 3, 2013.”

"The UN migration agency IOM has recorded 1,632 deaths or disappearances on the route so far this year (2022). The true number is likely to be much higher (informigrants.net, October 2022).

One horrible incident in October 2013 happened within sight of Lampedusa. The Guardian reported:

“The vessel was carrying 466 people from Somalia and Eritrea when it caught fire, capsized and sank near the island, drowning 311 people . . . The islanders pooled resources to feed and clothe survivors and bury bodies washed up on the shore.”

An overloaded inflatable is intercepted by the Italian Coast Guard.

An overloaded inflatable is intercepted by the Italian Coast Guard.

Arrival in Lampedusa

Yet, thousands of African migrants a month make it to Lampedusa, where they are put into a camp designed to hold 300. By the middle of 2021, the camp held 1,500 with hundreds more outside trying to get in.

Reporting for the BBC, Mark Lowen writes that “Lampedusa and its population of around 6,000 have shown immense resilience and, for the most part, hospitality over years of migratory pressure.” But the numbers have become overwhelming.

Anti-immigrant politicians are now popular, and they want the migrant boats stopped. In October 2022, Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the populist radical right party Brothers of Italy became the country's prime minister. During the election she ran on an anti-migrant platform and a promise to clamp down on Italy's borders.

Now, those seeking refugee status will have to overcome a hostile reception in Italy in addition to the physical barriers of desert and open seas.

The people who arrive on Lampedusa are documented and shipped to the Italian mainland. Many have deportation orders placed on them, but nobody seems to know how many of those orders are acted upon. The Italian bureaucracy has a well-deserved reputation for sloppiness so many migrants simply slip away from detention centres and into the underground economy.

There’s no shortage of unscrupulous employers ready to hire desperate people for less than the minimum wage.

The Migrant Boat Graveyard

Some of the broken-down old tubs that do make it to Lampedusa have been hauled ashore and put in a sort of cemetery.

Journalist Nick Craven visited the place in 2016 and wrote:

“As I walk through the boat graveyard, I find one vessel on which the deeply charred timbers around the engine area hint at the horrors its occupants experienced. Another is full of holes along the gunwales which may have been caused in a collision with another boat. The wood around the holes crumbles to dust between my fingers.”

Dozens of these rotting hulks baked in the sun and stood as reminders of the privations endured by so many people seeking a better life. But it seems even this mute testament was irritating to some people.

In June 2020, someone, or some people, torched the boat graveyard; hundreds of vessels went up in flames. A few days earlier, a memorial named “Gateway to Europe” was vandalized. The monument, designed by artist Mimmo Paladino, was erected in honour of those who died trying to reach Europe.

Both incidents are a testament to the anti-immigrant feelings growing in Italy.

Mimmo Paladino’s Porta d'Europa.

Mimmo Paladino’s Porta d'Europa.

Bonus Factoids

  • In 2015, the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey. The little boy’s death came about as he and his family were trying to escape the civil war in Syria. Their flimsy craft capsized shortly after leaving Turkey. Part of the response was for the European Union to send €6 billion ($7.3 billion) in aid to Turkey to help deal with refugees. The result was a sharp decline in the number of people trying to make a dangerous sea crossing from Turkey to Greece. This also meant a fall in lives lost due to boat accidents.
  • Francesco Tuccio is a carpenter living on Lampedusa. He helped rescue African migrants when their boat caught fire and capsized near the island. Later, he built 155 crosses out of wood salvaged from the wreckage for each of the survivors of the disaster. He also made several larger crosses.
One of Francesco Tuccio’s crosses.

One of Francesco Tuccio’s crosses.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor