Rescue from the Boats of Death
Pozzallo, on the Sicilian coast, wants to be a town that welcomes migrants and refugees – not corpses.
I get a lot of responses on Twitter to my posts about refugees – retweets, offers of support, questions about why people flee. Some come from refugees wanting to share their plight, or seeking help. One recent tweet, from a young man from Eritrea, hasn’t left my mind: “I am about to take the boat of death,” he wrote. “Try to stop me.”
The ‘boat of death’ is the term used by refugees and migrants for the terrible and dangerous sea journey across the Mediterranean, from the violence and persecution of their homelands, to sanctuary and a better life in Europe.
According to UNHCR’s statistics, one in 50 people drown on that journey. But the thousands who take it every month have so little to lose that they feel it’s worth gambling with their lives.
“I am about to take the boat of death,” he wrote. “Try to stop me.”
They hand over thousands of dollars – sometimes all the money they possess – to greedy and heartless smugglers who pack them onto boats designed for a few fishermen, not hundreds of refugees. The more these criminals pack in, the more they make – as much as $1 million a boat. Refugees call them the “merchants of death.”
In 2014, over 3,000 refugees and migrants lost their lives on the Mediterranean. Their boats were too unseaworthy, their distress calls too distant. Many were beaten, raped, tortured or tossed overboard simply for trying to move.
Of the 160,000 who made it alive to Italy this year, the majority can thank the heroic efforts of the Italian Navy and Coastguard, in the search-and-rescue operation called Mare Nostrum (“our sea,” the ancient Latin name for the Mediterranean).
This October, my family and I visited Pozzallo, a town of 19,000 people at the southern tip of Sicily. We had come to see the island’s magnificent historic towns, and to enjoy its warm weather and cuisine. But we also wanted to pay our respects to the communities that welcome refugees, and to thank the crews who man the rescue boats.
Pozzallo has earned a reputation as the “world capital of hospitality.” We were lucky to meet its compassionate mayor, Luigi Ammatuna, who told me: “I want to be the mayor of a town that welcomes migrants and refugees – not corpses.”
Despite stormy weather, 2,500 refugees and migrants arrived in Sicily during a single week in November, including hundreds of children. All were rescued by the Italian Navy or merchant vessels, and Mayor Ammatuna personally boarded the rescue boats to oversee their welcome, no matter the time of night or day.
“There are nights I don’t sleep,” she told me. “They need a mother, a family, a house, and they have this great desire to study.
Virginia Giugno, the deputy mayor, has become legal guardian to around 500 children who arrived alone.
“There are nights I don’t sleep,” she told me. “It is difficult for me because, as a mother, I would take them all home with me. They need a mother, a family, a house, and they have this great desire to study. I consider myself lucky because I live in a place where we open the doors – me, the mayor and the residents.”
We visited a centre for unaccompanied boat children in the nearby hill town of Comiso. It was a small, three-story house, painted inside with bright colours. The names of the children, four to a room, were carefully written in signs on their new bedroom doors. They went to local schools and learned Italian. A room with satellite TV and computers connected them to home and to the world.
“I feel good here,” a timid Somali boy named Mohamed told me. He said his mother had given her life savings for smugglers take him from Mogadishu to Sudan, then to Libya and across the Mediterranean Sea. He was still traumatized after witnessing 10 fellow passengers die of hunger and thirst. But he had hopes for a better future: to help his brothers escape Somalia and find safety here. “I would like to find a job and be a painter,” he said.
Mayor Ammatuna’s grimmest duty is to receive the dead. His eyes teared up when he spoke of one boat that arrived with 45 corpses. He ensured they were buried in cemeteries, and their coffins shrouded with the town flag, to give them all the dignity he could.
In October, the Italian government announced the end of Mare Nostrum, saying its $7 million monthly cost was too high. Instead, a much smaller EU-funded operation called Triton will patrol the shores off Italy. But its vessels will only run in European waters, and will focus on monitoring rather than rescue.
Mayor Ammatuna worried that this would bring more tragedy to his small town. “More people will die,” he told me.
In his homily during the Pozzallo funerals, Msgr. Angelo Giurdanella said: “The opposite of love is not hatred, but indifference.” His words echoed the Pope’s commemorative mass for the drowned of Lampedusa last summer, when he mourned “the culture of well-being that makes us insensitive to the cries of others… that brings the globalization of indifference.”
Will they arrive in Italy alive? I hope so, but it is increasingly uncertain.
A young Syrian man in Lebanon recently told me on LinkedIn that his life was on hold as he cared for eight family members, including five children, while his brothers fled to Europe on the ‘death boats’.
Will they arrive in Italy alive? I hope so, but it is increasingly uncertain. Without a massive rescue operation, the boats of death are more likely than ever to live up to their ominous name.
On 10-11 December, UNHCR will convene an international conference in Geneva on “Protection at Sea.” We hope it will create the momentum to reduce the horrific death toll among desperate people who undertake dangerous sea journeys. We will pay tribute to all those who save their lives.