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The lucky few: Migrants rescued from shipwreck arrive at the port of Messina, Sicily. There have been 1,200 migrant deaths this April alone (photo: Giovanni Isolino/AFP/Getty Images)

A recent trip to Sicily was, as with all family holidays, dominated by food, wine, culture and swimming. The island, rich with history and natural beauty, was the setting for a week of rollicking good fun.

It was only on a day trip to Monreale, a Norman town on the north–western coast of the island, that I was faced with the uncomfortable reality of Sicily’s immigration problems. As we drove up the coast we were confronted by hundreds of migrants, walking along the roadside of the Conca D’oro valley. Some were barefoot, all were men, walking in the heat towards Monreale, driven by the hope that there they would find refuge before heading to mainland Italy and on into Europe.

The crisis of the Mediterranean boat people has intermittently captured the attention of the media, particularly since October 2013 when a boat carrying immigrants from Libya capsized 800 metres off the coast of Lampedusa killing 360. Most journeys, which can cost as much as 2,000 euros, begin in Libya, but passengers travel from Gambia, Senegal, Somalia, Mali, Nigeria, Eritrea and Palestine.

In 2014 at least 218,000 migrants escaping poverty, war and persecution crossed the Mediterranean; many more did not survive the perilous journey hoping to Europe. Four shipwrecks this past April brought the estimated death toll to 1,200 for that month alone, compared with 3,200 for the whole of last year. This year’s toll is set to increase during the summer months, when the seas are calmer. The human tragedy cannot be ignored.

The figures are frightening, as are the details. One particularly horrifying case was reported after a shipwreck off Lampedusa last year, when a woman was found dead, still attached to the baby to which she had given birth on the fateful journey.

Such stories capture the imagination of the world’s press. But even then coverage is short-lived. In April, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond acknowledged the scale of the crisis: “The world is horrified at the appalling loss of life that is taking place in the Mediterranean.” He went on: “We must target the traffickers who are responsible for so many people dying at sea . . . we have to tackle [the problem] at every stage . . . Britain can make an important contribution to addressing the factors driving migration through our aid programme in key source countries.”

During the election campaign, UKIP leader Nigel Farage joined in, blaming David Cameron and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy: “It’s the European response that has caused this problem in the first place. The fanaticism of Sarkozy and Cameron to bomb Libya . . . what they’ve done is to completely destabilise Libya, to turn it into a country with much savagery,” he told the BBC. Farage’s solution? To give Christians priority in asylum requests, a suggestion for which he was widely condemned. “I have not got a problem with us offering refugee status to some Christians from those countries,” said Farage. The election — in which UKIP received more votes than the SNP and the Liberal Democrats combined — suggests that the British public is inclined to agree with him.

Then there was the row over whether Ed Miliband had accused Cameron of having blood on his hands. Miliband, during his ill-fated campaign, claimed: “The failure of post-conflict planning has been obvious. David Cameron was wrong to assume that Libya was a country whose institutions could simply be left to evolve and transform themselves. The tragedy is this could have been anticipated and it should have been avoided.” This spat was quickly forgotten, yet the story of the boat people will not go away.

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AnGiogoir
August 27th, 2015
3:08 PM
The Italian navy operation "saved more than 150,000 lives during the year that it ran" No. They picked up that number of people and ferried them to Europe. Not the same thing. We should be following the Australian example asap.

Alexander Barry
May 29th, 2015
3:05 AM
This is a very good analysis of the current situation but it does seem that there is no solution other than supporting stabilization in the countries of origin. It also opens the bigger question of why the western powers advocate the free movement of goods but not the free movement of people....

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