”Us, the rescuers, were in the middle of a sea of corpses.” And this is only the latest massacre in years of painful death and human toll.
The Italian migrant crisis has affected entire local communities and innocent victims. Between failed international agreements and painful pictures, the crisis took center stage in 2019. Then Covid hit. But the migrants never stopped coming.
The numbers of the human catastrophe
In 2019, 120.000 people tried reaching Europe via sea. Plus 1.319 people who either died or simply disappeared, swallowed by the waves. Almost 296.000 requests for asylum were filed and one third of these seekers came from Syria. Then, Afghani and Venezuelans followed.
In 2020, the worldwide pandemic slowed the migrations numbers down. In fact, the asylum requests dropped by 33%, down to 390.000. The same trend happened with the illegal crossing, which amounted to 2,3 million in 2016. Instead, last year the number was 114.300, 10% lower than 2019.
Another lowering number is the one identifying “landings” (migrants arriving by illegal boats), which amounted to 34.100, compared to the 11.500 of 2019. Despite these declines, migrants still die at sea. In 2020, 1754 people died or disappeared. And one number rose. In fact, illegal “landings” in the Italian island Lampedusa and in Malta rose by 154%.
These numbers seem to point to one trend. Migrants are still coming, only in smaller numbers. Plus, the official European statistics don’t take into consideration people who are crossing either by hiding in buses, cars, and trains. Or on foot, avoiding the legal border.
The Italian migrant crisis
At the beginning of this phenomenon, islands such as Lampedusa were at the forefront of rescue and hospitality. Since Italy was the first coast for boats coming from Libia, Syria, and other countries, Italians were the first ones to offer help -and often to rescue people from the Mediterranean. Slowly but surely, racism and fear started creeping in. And people started getting scared, asking for closed borders and to avoid rescuing migrants at sea.
The Open Arms case
The political leader of this scary populism has been Matteo Salvini from the Lega Nord party. In 2019, he was Interiors Minister. The boat Open Arms had saved 147 migrants who were drowning on their way to Lampedusa. Salvini refused to let them get to the harbor. Both the migrants and the crew were stuck at sea for days, with supplies lowering and in negotiations with the Minister. Salvini has been accused of kidnapping and the trial is supposed to start on September 2021.
Indeed, the Italian migrant crisis has evolved to avoid detection. Sometimes with the help of locals. For example, a woman from the city of Trieste, on the border with Slovenia. The Slovenian 63-year old was caught smuggling a total of five migrants hiding in her car. And a sum of euro 1500, or $2000.
Sometimes, people walk along the railway lines, hoping to hop on a train. Or to find seasonal work, especially in the South of Italy. In fact, these local trains touch tiny, agricultural villages that live off tomatoes and fruits. And that need cheap, seasonal workers.
In this tense climate, bad apples thrive -and so does racism. Two of the most recents events paint a painful picture. In one, three police officers are caught on camera, beating two young migrants on a train. The two were hiding in the toilette of a train going to Ventimiglia. The episode is under investigation.
Another incident happened when a group of Italians on a SUV crossed paths with a group of migrants on a different car. People from the SUV started shooting, hitting one of the victims in the face. Then, they sped off.
A sea of corpses
“Us, the rescuers, were in the middle of a sea of corpses” are the words of Alessandro Porro, an Italian rescuer on board the Ocean Viking, part of the SOS Mediterranee fleet. During the April landing, 130 migrants died at sea, while Europe stood watching.
Everyone on the boat died. And, with the migration trend raising once again, it seems like summer 2021 might be a difficult time. Truth is, European authorities don’t have answers to solve the Italian migrant crisis.