TURIN — Thousands of people — calling them people, i.e. men, women and children, is the first step — have died in the Strait of Sicily since 2010. Sunday saw the worst tragedy yet, but it was not the first, and unfortunately it won't be the last.
Many of these people are fleeing the civil war in Syria, conflicts in the Horn of Africa, the renewed crisis in Iraq. They are displaced people and refugees who, under international law, can apply for asylum. Others are economic migrants who hope to escape poverty. The difference between these two groups — refugees and migrants — has been lost in the vast numbers of people arriving.
The criminal gangs who run the black hole that is Libya, brutally and viciously trafficking human beings, certainly don't care why these desperate people are coming. It also matters little for the exasperated Italians every time there is news of landings or tragedies at sea, and it doesn't mean much either for those frightened by the potential connection between migration and terrorist infiltration.
So rather than looking at these victims as people, we are too often left dividing ourselves into "hawks" and "doves" on how to face the problem of undocumented immigration into Europe.
Meanwhile, European countries further away from our Mediterranean cemetery pretend not to know that Italy's borders are the EU's borders too.
Our country is accused of being a sieve. We can respond with with this statistic: Of the EU's 28 countries, the vast majority of refugees (about 70%) are concentrated in just five countries — including Italy. Proposals of European quotas (a division of costs) have remained on paper, and the common asylum system has had little practical effect.
An honest discussion — and not the "what to do" discussion that follows every tragedy in our territorial waters — should meanwhile be based on three points.
First, the issue of migration from Africa to Europe across the Mediterranean can no longer be managed as an emergency. It is not an emergency, it's a structural phenomenon, determined by a number of obvious causes: the demographic gap between the sea's shores, the severity of the conflicts, the still-backward socio-economic conditions in several African countries.
Italian coast guards rescuing migrants in Lampedusa — Photo: Croce Rossa Italiana di Lampedusa
If the phenomenon is structural, migratory flow will continue with unprecedented numbers. And I personally do not think that a purely humanitarian response of simply opening Europe to absorb the increased flows will work, if not just for political reasons. Neither will a strictly "security-driven" answer (a closed Europe, able to push migrants back). In fact, both responses should be seen as separate and vital tools in any new policy. A harder attitude is needed towards the traffickers — or perpetrators of a "new slave trade," as Prime Minister Matteo Renzi called it.
New ways are also needed to sort through asylum applications in "areas made safe" on the southern shores of the Mediterranean ("safe havens" and humanitarian corridors in transit countries), as well as rational management of a controlled flow of migrants, both protected and regular.
Secondly, there can be no response to these tragedies at sea without rebuilding stability in key counties, especially Libya. The Italian government rightly considers this an international priority. Libya is not just in our own backyard, it is the underbelly through which a growing instability from the Mediterranean and Africa is seeping into Europe. It is true that achieving peace in Libya will mainly depend on the factions and tribes that are fighting, but it is essential to at least put a regional network of containment in place, based on agreements with local actors, including Egypt.
Finally, we must acknowledge that the question of migration is becoming a more difficult and delicate test than the Greek debt crisis for the EU. In the case of Greece, there is at least a sense that sufficient barriers against financial contagion have been established as a point of common interest. Instead, on the question of migration, Europe is showing neither solidarity, nor the ability to prevent the infection from spreading.
Countries like Italy — the first point of entry — have the disproportionate burden of facing the human tragedy and costs of welcoming the first arrivals. Meanwhile, countries like Germany, Britain and Sweden note that most of the refugees arrive in their countries later.
It is an opaque system that doesn't work for Italy, nor for the rest of the continent. Moreover, Operation Triton — the EU naval operation that replaced Mare Nostrum, more focused on surveillance than humanitarian concerns — doesn't work. The underfunded program is not able to deal with emergencies nor quell the landings that critics of Mare Nostrum said it would.
None of this will be enough without the basic pre-condition that the EU finally creates a genuine common policy on immigration, based on a safe and shared vision of the relationship to be established between foreign human resources and the continent's labor market.
This issue isn't only about those southern points of entry — it's about the EU's very future. If convincing answers are not found, the political forces that want to close the borders of both the Mediterranean Sea and European continent are bound to win.