Lampedusa is a beautiful island in the Mediterranean sea; lying between Sicily and Tunisia, it’s the southernmost point of Italy. This sunny island boasts plenty of beautiful beaches, including one considered the best in the world, sparkling blue seas, and a thriving fishing and farming community.
However, in recent years Lampedusa has also frequently been a byword for the refugee crisis. Its position makes it the nearest European territory to troubled Libya, and therefore a gateway for the desperate – should they be fortunate enough to reach it.
A twenty metre long fishing boat set sail from Misrata in Libya, but there were no fishermen on board; no fishing nets or poles. Instead, the boat was packed with desperate people, each of whom had paid around 1,600 USD for the “privilege”. This boat would probably have felt crowded with around a hundred people on board; there were more than five times that number here. Crammed into every conceivable space, there was little room to move – and, with the boat overloaded so far beyond its capacity, it was dangerous to do so. There was next to no fresh water on board; those inside were cramped and overheated, while the waves of the Mediterranean Sea soaked those on the decks to the skin.
Their destination, for the moment, was Lampedusa. This starkly beautiful island combines the geology of Africa with the culture of Italy. Fewer than seven thousand people live there, many making their living in the traditional fishing industry, but it is also popular with tourists. One beach in particular has been voted the most beautiful in the world.
But the people on the boat cared little about any of that. What mattered was that Lampedusa is European, and only a little over 258 miles, or 416km, from Misrata by sea.
By around 2am on the 3rd of October, 2013, this boat lay about half a mile off Lampedusa. The people onboard could see the lights of the island twinkling in the darkness.
The engine was stopped. After listening to it drone for so long, the near silence must have been astounding; the only sounds left were the waves hitting the side of the boat, and whatever conversation happened aboard it.
However, it quickly became apparent that stopping the engine had also stopped the bilge water pumps. The boat was taking on water. There was an attempt to restart the engine, but without success. Then, someone set fire to a blanket. Perhaps they hoped to use it to attract attention from the shore.
But the burning blanket ignited fuel that had been spilled on the deck, and flames burst forth. Panicked, the passengers scrambled to get away from the fire. In doing so, they shifted the balance of the overburdened boat, and it capsized. Many of the passengers were trapped inside, and had no hope of escape. Those outside on the deck had only a slim chance.
Selomun, a 24 year old musician from Eritrea, was amongst those on the top deck.
“I was woken by people screaming. I had three or four seconds to react as the boat capsized. Most people slipped and fell in, but I held on. As the boat tipped to one side, I made my way to the top by moving through the rails like monkey bars.”
As he hung on to a railing, others tried to cling on to him, trying to pull themselves up by his belt. They dragged him back into the water – but then his belt broke.
“They drowned with my trousers in their hands.”
18 year old Fanus, also from Eritrea, had made her way to the top deck because she felt claustrophobic and sick. She was thrown into the water. She couldn’t swim.
“A guy had me by the neck and was dragging me under, but I pushed him down and was able to shoot myself up to the surface.”
She was pulled onto the overturned boat by another passenger, but it did not stay afloat for long. The survivors were left with nothing to hang onto except the corpses of their former travelling companions.
“I’d never been in a body of water before. I was trying to stay afloat by splashing my hands like a dog.”
Vito Fiorino, a Lampedusan fisherman, had gone out with friends on the evening of October the 2nd to Cala Tabaccara, a stunning cove on the island which can only be reached by boat. They had slept on the boat there, planning to go fishing in the morning.
However, when the anchor was hauled in early on the morning of the third, and the engine started, it was not to go fishing. At least, not for fish.
His friend Alessandro explained that they had heard people calling out for help. Fiorino thought at first it was the sound of birds. As he later related to local writer Davide Enia:
[Note: I mispronounced the writer’s name in the podcast due to my terrible handwriting. It is Enia, not Eniu. Sincere apologies.]
“…We set out from the Tabaccara promontory. There were shearwaters flying in the air, there were seagulls. “You see? You see?” Then I went to the prow of the boat, ready to tell him again: “You see that there’s nothing out there at all?”
Instead, I suddenly saw this strip of sea full of all these people shouting. They were crying, “Help!” All these dark silhouettes. All these arms. And that’s when I thought: There’s a tragedy going on. There were at least two hundred people.”
They immediately notified the coast guard and set about doing what they could – knowing there was no way that they could rescue so many alone.
One of the coast guard officers involved in the rescue later told Vice News:
“On October 3rd, we received the first emergency call around 7 o’clock… We came across a very difficult situation. People were scattered over a huge area. They didn’t have enough strength to swim or save their own lives. We had to get them one by one.”
Fiorino and his friends had rescued as many as they could, but it was not easy.
“They were miserable, naked, completely filthy with diesel fuel. When I managed to grab someone, they’d slide out of my grip… In the meantime, another little boat showed up, small, no longer than sixteen feet, lower to the water than mine. It was the Nica, Costantino’s boat. I watched out of the corner of my eye. Costantino was hauling these kids out of the water without even grabbing their hands, he was just picking them up by brute force, grabbing them by the seat of their pants and tossing them into the boat. He managed to get eleven into the boat.”
A trawler arriving on the scene at first mistook the two fishing boats for smugglers, throwing people overboard; once they realised the truth, they, too, took part in the rescue.
“That trawler had high sides, they were forced to throw lines overboard, hoping that anyone who was in the water would be able to get a solid grip, and then they could haul them up. There were some who were able, others who weren’t. They rescued eighteen people.”
Fiorino’s boat took on 47 survivors.
Enia also spoke to Costantino, the fisherman mentioned by Fiorino.He described how difficult it was to pull the survivors from the sea.
“Onder and I started trying to rescue them, but they’d slip out of our hands because they were covered with diesel oil. We’d grab them as hard as we could, but it was impossible to get a grip on their arms, on their hands, on their chest. The diesel made anything we tried to do impossible. Every effort failed… We aimed at people wearing clothes, hauling them in by their trousers, their t-shirts, their belts. One body after the other. Grab the trousers, grab the cloth, there was no other way to do it.”
The growing band of rescuers focused on those still moving, those who were alive, but increasingly all they found were the dead.
“Out of the corner of my eye I saw a young woman floating in the water move her hand. It was so hard to retrieve her. She was all covered with diesel fuel. She kept slipping away. But we finally managed to haul her in. I took off my t-shirt to dry her off, to clean the kerosene off her arms, out of her armpits, to cover her up. The young woman vomited diesel fuel, coughed, vomited again. But she was alive.”
Simone D’Ippolito, a diving instructor on Lampedusa, was also on the scene that day. He had just left port when he passed Fiorino’s boat, coming in laden with survivors.Then, he saw a Coast Guard ship, which signalled him to slow down.
“And on the surface of the water I see a child’s T-shirt.
A plastic bag.
An identity card bobbing on the surface.
A dead body.
A pair of shorts.
A pair of shoes.
A dead body.
Three dead bodies.”
There was nobody left alive to save. Later, D’Ippolito was asked to dive at the scene, to locate the wreck.
“And right there, as if it had been set down from above, is the sunken refugee boat. It’s an eighty foot fishing boat, motionless in that white space. And all around, as if they’d been carefully placed on the sand, are the corpses… I’m swimming and I’m crying. I swim and I cry. On the stern transom of the fishing boat, there are two bodies. They have their arms wrapped around each other. Both heads are turned upward, as if looking at the sky. I swim and I cry. I have to go into the hull to understand the situation belowdecks. I swim inside and everywhere I look there are corpses. One atop the other, in every space, in every nook and cranny. There are dead people everywhere. Corpses upon corpses upon corpses. Inside the fishing boat, there were two hundred fifty dead bodies. I didn’t want to dive again as long as I lived.”
Lampedusa was already used to the arrival of refugees – both alive and dead – but this was an unprecedented tragedy.
Dr Pietro Bartolo is frequently one of the first people they meet on arrival; he and his team assess the condition of the migrants so that those in need of urgent medical care can receive it, before they are processed into the immigration centre.
On that morning, he was already on the pier, having spent the night working through two boatloads of Syrian refugees that had arrived. In his book, “Lampedusa: Gateway to Europe”, Bartolo described the scenes that day.
“Another fishing boat arrived. Its captain, Domenico, blundered and his boat collided with the pier… Domenico was trembling. I knew him to be an expert sailor who had faced death many times, and I had never seen him in such a state before… He had twenty survivors with him, all of them extremely unwell… His boat did not have a ladder to make it easier for survivors to climb aboard. To get the survivors onto the boat, he’d had the crew grip his legs while he leaned out to heave them up by the arms.
“Many of them slipped through my fingers because of all the diesel – they might as well have been covered in grease,” he said. “They went underwater, and they never came back up. Pietro, I tried to save them, but I couldn’t. It was dreadful.”
As well as the survivors on board, there were four bodies in Domenico’s fishing net. Incredibly, as Bartolo examined them, he discovered that one, a young woman, still had a pulse. She was rushed to the clinic where she was successfully resuscitated, and sent on to Palermo by helicopter.
Sadly, such miracles were a rarity. By the time Dr Bartolo returned to the pier, the only arrivals were the dead. Body bags were lined up along the pier, waiting for his inspection.
The first one he opened contained a young boy, “wearing a pair of striking red shorts, as if he had dressed up smartly for his first day of a new life.”
“At least twenty of them were clenching crucifixes on chains between their teeth, as if their final act were to entrust themselves to God. Since then, I have often dreamed of those lips clamped shut around the cross. One woman had given birth. Her umbilical cord was still attached. We put her and her baby in the same coffin, together with a teddy bear.”
As the number of dead grew, officials struggled with how to find enough coffins, and where to put them. Freezer trucks and the island’s airport hangar had to be employed.
Eventually, 359 bodies would be recovered from this single incident, with more believed to still be missing. 155 people had been rescued.
Forensic scientists were brought in to help identify the remains. This was necessary because of the condition of the bodies. Even if they had friends or family amongst the survivors, many of the bodies were unrecognisable. Enia’s book, “Notes on a Shipwreck”, quotes a few of those who were confronted by these sights.
“They were people, but they looked like sponges.”
“…the bodies they were supposed to identify didn’t even slightly resemble their memories or the photographic portraits they’d brought with them. Petite young girls now had vast shapeless bodies. And there was often a part missing from the body that was to be identified: part of a leg, or a few fingers, both eyes, the feet, a hand, the ears, an arm, the lower lip. There were bite marks everywhere.”
The dead were numbered, as were any meagre possessions found on their bodies by which they might be identified. Dr Bartolo led the examinations, taking samples for further identification – a process he described as “another affront” – and they were placed in similarly numbered coffins. Teddy bears were placed with the dead children.
Prime Minister of Italy, Enrico Letta, promised a state funeral for all the victims, however many were buried in locations around mainland Sicily, without final identification and without family members in attendance.
The official ceremony was held in the Sicilian city of Agrigento, and this was, itself, controversial. Representatives of the Eritrean government – the very regime that many of the dead had been fleeing from – were invited to attend. But the survivors were not. They tried to take a ferry from Lampedusa, and were refused permission to board. Instead, they staged a sit-in at Lampedusa’s Town Hall. One survivor there told SkyTG24 television:
“One of us lost three kids and his wife. We asked to go and we want to go legally, but they wouldn’t let us. We only want to bury those we lost at sea.”
In addition, Italian president Giorgio Napolitano announced that citizenship would be granted post-mortem to the dead; but since this offer was not extended to the survivors, it was a purely symbolic gesture.
As for the survivors, unless they required medical treatment that could not be provided on Lampedusa, they were processed into the island’s refugee centre. They would then either make their asylum claim, or find a way to leave and try to reach another European destination. Either way, it would be a long time before they could finally say that their journey was actually over.
If this were any other kind of shipwreck, I would now talk about the causes of the shipwreck, what regulations applied to it, and how they might change to prevent a recurrence. But that doesn’t apply here because it was an illegal journey.
It’s obvious that the boat wouldn’t have sunk if it hadn’t been overloaded, if it had been properly crewed, if a blanket hadn’t been set on fire above a fuel-soaked deck. None of this would happen on a legal, properly authorised voyage.
However, since this was an illegal operation run by greedy people smugglers, they were intent on making the most profit possible with no care for the suffering that entailed. Thus, they used the cheapest boats possible, packed on as many people as possible, and sent as few crew along as they could. Those they did send would either leave the boat before it reached its destination, leaving the refugees to pilot themselves the rest of the way, or pose as refugees themselves to avoid arrest. The people taking this journey knew all of this; they knew that it would be an incredibly dangerous trip, that many of them could die – and they came anyway.
So, instead of asking why this voyage was so perilous, we must ask why people would take such a risk.
There are many, many different ways by which one might become an illegal migrant, or a refugee. In this particular case, many of the passengers on the doomed boat originally came from Eritrea.
Many Westerners would be hard pressed to point out Eritrea on the map; it lies in North East Africa, between Ethiopa and the coast. It was, in fact, once part of Ethiopia, after being annexed in 1962, with a war of independence waging until 1991, and a referendum formally establishing independence in 1993.
According to Human Rights Watch:
“Eritrea’s government is extraordinarily repressive, subjecting its population to widespread forced labor and conscription, imposing restrictions on freedom of expression, opinion, and faith, and restricting independent scrutiny by international monitors. As a one-man dictatorship under President Isaias Afewerki, Eritrea has no legislature, no independent civil society organizations or media outlets, and no independent judiciary. Elections have never been held in the country since it gained independence in 1993, and the government has never implemented the 1997 constitution guaranteeing civil rights and limiting executive power.”
What this means, specifically, is:
Citizens are subject to mandatory military service, with an indefinite term. There is no recognition of conscientious objection; objectors may be sent to prison without charge for lengthy periods. Once conscripted from high school, people have no say in their career or where they work, with low wages combining to effectively make it a form of slave labour.
Only four religious faiths are officially recognised in Eritrea; all others risk imprisonment and torture. Jehovah’s Witnesses have notably been targeted, particularly since conscientious objection is part of their faith, and “unrecognised” Christians – that is, not Roman Catholics or Evangelical Lutherans – have been targeted and arrested at weddings and funerals.
Homosexuality is also outlawed, with the penal code mandating imprisonment of between five and seven years. Travel is severely restricted, with those daring to leave their home without appropriate paperwork risking detention.
While people can be arrested in Eritrea for any of those reasons, there are more who are rounded up and detained without ever learning why. Their families often don’t even know where they are held, and might only learn what happened to their loved one when they have their body returned to them.
In “The New Odyssey”, journalist Patrick Kingsley wrote about Adam, an Eritrean teenager he met in Sicily, after the boy had been rescued from a similar migrant boat.
“He’s barely five feet tall, more child than teenager, and in his desert journey from Eritrea he faced more traumas than most of us will in a lifetime.”
Kingsley describes how Adam and the other migrants he travelled with were fired upon by Egyptian police, causing them to leave their route and get lost, with several dying of thirst. Then, in Libya, they were fired on again by a jihadist militia, with more dead. His group was then returned to Sudan in a show of border enforcement for the media; they were imprisoned in Sudan, and sentenced to be deported back to Eritrea, until the UN stepped in and they were put in a refugee camp near the Sudanese-Eritrean border. He had then made it back to Ajdabiya.
“While those travelling along the western route to Libya often avoid getting kidnapped and ransomed, it is a routine experience for most migrants who cross the eastern flank… on arrival in Ajdabiya, you’re locked in a compound until your extended family cobbles together the cash to pay the smugglers.. No refugees will pay the money themselves before they reach Ajdabiya, because the smugglers might not take them all the way. And no one carries cash to pay on arrival, because it will be stolen. So your family will have to find $1,600 in retrospective payment for the desert journey. And if your family hasn’t got that money, the smugglers torture you while your family listens on the phone…Adam waited for six months, and as punishment he says he was made to stand in the blazing Libyan sun, on one leg, for twelve hours a day.”
From there, the migrants would be driven west, often in sealed containers which leave many dead from dehydration or suffocation. Then, the same process repeats, with another compound and another group of smugglers demanding money, this time in advance for the sea voyage across the Mediterranean.
“Again you wait in squalid conditions, usually for a week or more, but sometimes months. Food gets distributed just once a day, and again there are regular beatings. Women are often raped.”
And the migrants know about this before they leave; they expect this to happen. The fact that they accept this as the price for reaching Europe surely illustrates the horrors of the lives they want to leave behind.
Eritrea is, of course, only one source of migrants. As mentioned earlier, Dr Bartolo had dealt with two boat loads of Syrians before learning of the 3rd October shipwreck; victims of the war there who went from leading normal lives to losing everything but their hope.
There are Nigerians fleeing Boko Haram, Libyans fleeing the so-called Islamic State, Afghans running from the Taliban. Conflict, famine and drought in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Somalia have all sent their citizens on the same path. All tell similar stories; their journeys are characterised by violence, fear, danger and death.
In addition, in the time since I originally wrote this episode, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has created an internal refugee crisis in Europe, with more than four million people leaving Ukraine in just five weeks.
In Lampedusa, many people understand the motivation of those arriving in this way. A local interviewed by Vice News said:
“Who wouldn’t flee war and starvation? History teaches us that mankind has always migrated to find better opportunities. Why would we reject them? They’re human beings experiencing problems in their home countries. We have to welcome them in the best possible way.”
In the wake of this particular tragedy, Italy established Operation Mare Nostrum – “Our Sea”. This military and humanitarian mission aimed to safeguard human life at sea, and bring human traffickers and people smugglers to justice. It lasted for a little over a year, costing some 9 million Euros a month, and rescued more than 100,000 refugees in that time. However, it was then replaced by a more affordable operation, Triton, which would focus on border surveillance within 30 miles of the Italian coast, instead of the proactive search and rescue that Mare Nostrum provided.
The logic, at least in some parts, was that the protection Mare Nostrum provided was an incentive for refugees to make the trip. However, when you look at how hazardous the journey as a whole was expected to be, it seems unlikely that this made much of a contribution. Removing the protection of Mare Nostrum, however, might have meant that some refugees chose a slightly different route.
Because Italy is not the only country with this problem. Other migrant routes go through Turkey, making an equally hazardous crossing of the Aegean Sea to reach Greece. On the Turkish side, shopkeepers of all kinds have been known to add rubber dinghies to their wares, knowing there will be refugees to buy them. One such boat, designed for eight people, was carrying 16 from Bodrum in Turkey, bound for Kos in Greece, on the 2nd of September 2015 when it capsized. Among them was 3 year old Alan Kurdi. The picture of his lifeless body on the beach caused shock and outrage worldwide when it was published.
Abdullah Kurdi, Alan’s father, spoke to the British nation in the Channel 4 Alternative Christmas Message in 2015:
“If a person shuts a door in someone’s face, this is very difficult. When a door is opened, they no longer feel humiliated. At this time of year I would like to ask you all to think about the pain of fathers, mothers and children who are seeking peace and security. We ask just for a little bit of sympathy from you. Hopefully next year the war will end in Syria and peace will reign over the world.”
Sadly that wish has not come true. The situation for many families like the Kurdis remains unchanged; on Christmas Day, 2021, news broke of the death of at least 16 migrants in the Aegean Sea, after a boat carrying 80 overturned. It was the third such incident that week.
While countries like Italy and Greece struggle to bear the burden of incoming refugees, other countries struggle just as hard to avoid sharing it.
In Kingsley’s book, he succinctly expressed the problem.
“There is a crisis, but it’s one caused largely by our response to the refugees, rather than by the refugees themselves. The figure 850,000 sounds like a lot – and in terms of historic migration to Europe it is. But this is only about 0.2 per cent of the EU’s total population of roughly 500 million, an influx that the world’s richest continent can feasibly absorb if – and only if – it’s handled properly.”
Under the Dublin Regulation of EU law, the first member state where fingerprints are stored, or where an asylum claim is lodged, is responsible for that person’s asylum claim.
This means that border countries – those most easily reached by refugees – become responsible for the majority of such claims, rather than sharing the burden with other countries in the EU. When there is a large influx, as there was in the wake of the Arab Spring and the following years, resources in those countries become stretched to, and often beyond, their limit. Conditions in refugee centres deteriorate – but even so, they still don’t compare to the conditions these people left behind, so of course they will keep coming.
That’s not to say that those border countries are the only ones with a perceived “refugee problem”, nor the only ones with people dying to get in. In November 2021, at least 27 refugees drowned in one incident as they attempted to cross the English Channel from France and reach the UK; their overloaded dinghy deflated and sank beneath them. This was the worst incident in the Channel so far, but again, not an isolated one, with the International Organisation for Migration stating that 166 migrants have been recorded dead or missing there since 2014. French authorities reported that over 31,000 people had attempted the crossing in 2021, with 7,800 rescued at sea.
Despite this, that summer the UK government proposed a “Nationality and Borders Bill” which implied that search and rescue services like the Royal National Lifeboat Institution might be liable for prosecution if they “knowingly facilitated the arrival” of an asylum seeker by rescuing them at sea. Under pressure from the RNLI and other charities, home secretary Priti Patel was forced to table an amendment, making an exception for those acting for or on behalf of Her Majesty’s coastguard.
Whilst “Europe” as a whole is the destination for thousands of migrants, many arrive with more specific goals. The UK is a popular choice because English is spoken, at least to some degree, by so many. This is, in part, a relic of our colonial days which some would argue gives us a responsibility for these people. Others have a specific country in mind because they already have friends or relatives there, and more choose their destination on the basis of their policies towards refugees: looking for countries which do not apply the Dublin Regulations, those which make it easier for migrants to find work, and those which offer better family reunification policies. This last means that one member of the family – often a young male, based on strength and health – can make the perilous journey, and then bring the rest of their family through safer, legal means.
Still others arrive with no particular country in mind, happy to settle wherever they might find peace, only to find further prejudice and persecution based on their status as refugees. They then attempt to move, within Europe, to a country perceived as more welcoming. If, in their current location, they face an apparently interminable wait in a crowded refugee camp or centre, with no guarantee of a favourable outcome, they are likely to look for alternatives which may give them a quicker route to security.
At its heart, the problem lies in the fact that too many of our governments are focused on trying to deter refugees from coming – never acknowledging the fact that they cannot be deterred.
People will always strive and hope for something better, and when all that lies behind them is war, torture, death and destruction, of course we offer a more attractive option.
If given no legal way to get here, they will turn to illegal routes, because, like pawns in a game of chess, they can only go forwards.
Their right to use such illegal routes is recognised by the UN Refugee Convention, and they should not be penalised for doing so – but in practice, they are, both by the danger and trauma of those routes, and by the perception of their new neighbours towards them.
In the end, there are basically two ways to end the refugee crisis and ensure that tragedies like the 2013 Lampedusa Shipwreck stop occurring.
One is to end all war and oppression, all famine and drought.
The other is to open all borders.
Neither is likely to happen.
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Sources, References and Further Reading
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