An entirely foreseeable tragedy occurred on Friday, 45 miles off the Libyan coast: 117 people are missing, joining the long list of human beings who were simply left to die. This is nothing short of a crime against humanity, a massacre for which the European governments, and first and foremost the Italian government, are chiefly responsible.
When Italian officials became aware of the shipwreck in progress, they once again chose the approach preferred by the Lega, handing off the task of finding the sinking boat to the so-called ‘Libyan Coast Guard’ and washing their hands of it instead of taking prompt action with their own resources and coordinating the relief efforts, as Italy used to do until not so long ago.
The Libyans failed to intervene, and asked for assistance—only then did the Italian airplane finally take to the skies, rescuing the last three remaining survivors. For many hours, these people waited for help that never arrived. The political will to continue violating international law prevailed, and the boat sank into the depths together with its human cargo.
We hope that the judiciary, as well as the international institutions, will be able to quickly establish who is guilty—in terms of criminal guilt, because it is perfectly clear where the political guilt lies. The Parliament has asked the government to explain immediately how the situation developed and clarify the exact details of the Italian operation.
This is the first tragedy of 2019 that happened because of the absence of Italian intervention, justified by invoking a shared international fiction: the pretense that there is such a thing as a real ‘Libyan Coast Guard’ with search and rescue capabilities. A whole stretch of sea has become a maritime no-man’s-land, because Salvini started to wage his full-scale war against the NGOs and their rescue activities at sea (while it should be pointed out that the campaign against the NGOs had already been promoted by the previous government with the ‘Minniti Code’), ensuring that rank cynicism would triumph over institutional responsibilities and international law.
Our government is responsible for the deaths of the 117 men, women and children whose only crime was that they fled the Libyan living hell, the violence and torture at the hands of the militias acting with Italy’s support. With not even a hint of shame in the face of such a tragedy, the Italian government is maintaining course, criminalizing rescues and peddling the usual anti-trafficker rhetoric.
If anyone needs reminding, we’ll say it again: rescuing people at sea is a legal duty, first of all for states, and then for anyone who happens to be in the vicinity of a shipwreck. The anti-trafficker rhetoric is a fig leaf used to conceal governmental support for the Libyan militias, who are turning a profit off the backs of migrants from the generous Italian and international aid. By preventing the NGOs from operating in the central Mediterranean, in addition to causing an increase in deaths, the European governments are in effect lending a hand to the people traffickers, who can finally feel free to do what they want in this part of the sea without any witnesses, as even commercial vessels are now choosing to stay away in order to avoid getting on the bad side of our government or of some overzealous local magistrate.
Meanwhile, the departures of the boats continue, even in the dead of winter, as shown by those that landed on our shores during these first days of 2019.
The departures from Libya are likely to increase over the coming months, because of the violence and the ongoing conflicts between the militias that control the territory, marked by increasing instability due to a civil war that the members of the international community are intentionally ignoring for their own selfish interests.
Just a few hours after the rescue of the three survivors, Sea Watch—the only NGO that is still active in that part of the sea (the rest have had to shut down operations or withdraw as a result of Salvini’s open war against them)—rescued another 47 people from another sinking boat: people who would be dead if our Interior Minister had his way.
It is crucial at this point to get more people mobilized around Mediterranea, the Italian platform that has organized an operation to monitor and denounce the conditions in the central Mediterranean, with three missions between October and December of 2018 and with the participation of European organizations joined under the banner of United4Med, aiming to build a civic European search and rescue program.
We also need a great mobilization of Italian and European civil society in order to ensure a safe haven for the 47 castaways aboard the Sea Watch, before they again become hostages to the governments’ blatant cynicism.
We must give a voice and a platform to that part of Italy and Europe that is unwilling to surrender to state-sponsored racism, and is unwilling to keep standing idly by while mass deaths are being willfully and cruelly perpetrated for a fistful of votes.