Death in the Water

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Every Mediterranean seaside destination has its own particular appeal: the soft sands of Mykonos, cliffside views in Portofino, non-stop nightlife in St. Tropez. The tiny island of Lampedusa, the southernmost dot on Italy's map, is prized above all for the crystal clarity of its turquoise waters. But this same stretch of Mediterranean is rapidly acquiring a much darker notoriety. Once again this summer, as both Italian and foreign sun-lovers soak up their beach holidays, boatloads of would-be immigrants from North Africa have been aiming for Lampedusa's coastline in a desperate attempt to reach European shores. And with tragic predictablity, the lovely waters have turned lethal. Officials fear that as many as 60 people perished in the open sea near the rocky island over the weekend in two successive wrecks of rickety, overloaded fishing boats that had set off from the Libyan coast.

Like thousands of others over the past three years, the mostly sub-Saharan African victims had embarked with the promise of safe passage into European Union territory from human traffickers who charge several thousand dollars for the two-day journey. Officials estimate that this year nearly 10,000 aspiring immigrants have reached Lampedusa, a rocky 9.6 sq. mi. island that sits between Sicily and North Africa. At least 11 died in July near the island of Malta, before the latest two incidents. On Sunday, 10 bodies were recovered after a boat with more than 30 immigrants overturned south of Lampedusa. That came a day after a vessel with as many as 120 sank. Some 70 immigrants were saved, while 10 bodies, four of them women, were recovered as Coast Guard patrols continued to search for signs of the missing. Law enforcement officials repeatedly note that there are almost certainly entire boatloads in the illegal trafficking ring that simply disappear without any way of tracing them.

The arrival in European Union territory of illegal immigrants — and the accompanying tragedies of those who don't make it — ebbs and flows all along the Mediterranean coastline. But several routes have become favorites of the traffickers, both for the relative proximity to the poverty of Africa and for the ability to evade authorities. Beyond Lampedusa, the Canary Islands, part of Spanish territory, continues to be flooded with the arrival of makeshift, precarious boats called cayucos or pateras. In the past three days alone, more than 1,300 immigrants have arrived in the Canaries, mostly from countries like Senegal, Mauritania and Cape Verde, bringing this year's total to more than 18,000 in the archipelago.

Osvaldo Lemus, coordinator of one of the emergency response teams mounted by the Spanish Red Cross, says the immigrants "come dehydrated, hungry, thirsty and often suffering from deep cold; many have splinters in their extremities and bruises from the contact and rubbing on the boat." One bright spot is the cooperation and solidarity he finds from anonymous volunteers, who are increasingly flying down to the Canaries to help, and even the impromptu aid of local vacationers. Lemus recalled when one recent boat washed ashore near a popular beach, several locals rushed over to help the immigrants, "warming them up with their bodies, giving them cover from the sun. It's happened several times, and it's beautiful".

Still, it is evident that Europe needs a better strategy than relying on the good will of sunbathers. Italian officials responded to the deaths off Lampedusa by calling on Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to live up to agreements to tighten patrols along his country's coastline. Many believe Gaddafi cynically uses the threat of "opening the spigot" on the droves of sub-Saharan Africans gathering on Libyan shorelines in order to gain concessions on outstanding diplomatic questions, including Italian reparations for past colonial injustices. Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba is traveling today to Senegal and Mauritania to meet with authorities and discuss measures to control the outflow. Vice-president María Teresa Fernández de la Vega will visit Finland on Wednesday to discuss the issue with the Finnish authorities, who hold the rotating EU presidency.

Still, the issue of illegal immigration — and the emergency of the waterbound Africa-Europe journey — is a problem that requires a broader and longer vision. Ruggiero Giuliani, medical coordinator for Italy's branch of Médecins Sans Frontières, the only NGO operating on Lampedusa, says that push-and-pull pressures mean that people will continue to risk their lives for a shot at a living wage. "The migratory flow depends on the conditions of the country of origin, the countries of transit, and the country of destination," he says. "There is extreme poverty at one end, and a demand for manpower at the other." Virtually all agree that the two keys to solving the problem are for Europe to forge a single, comprehensive continent-wide immigration policy, and for Africa to achieve rapid economic development. And virtually no one expects either one anytime soon.