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Why They Keep Coming. Not Even Death Deters Europe-Bound Migrants

Essay: Approximately 250 North African migrants died this week when their boat capsized off the coast of Italy's Lampedusa island. According to writer Ferdinando Camon, the tragedy challenges everything Europeans thought they knew about immigrati

Immigrants in the port of Lampedusa
Immigrants in the port of Lampedusa
Ferdinando Camon

We now know the truth about immigration. We may have thought we knew before, but all of that was just a lie. Now we know.

We knew that thousands of migrants were crowding the island of Lampedusa, even outnumbering the local population. We knew their needs, and we called them wretched. We knew their demands, and we called them unbearable. We saw them climbing the fences of the shelters and running away through the fields, chased in vain by policemen on foot or horseback, like in the movies.

But that wasn't the truth. It was just an illusion. We Italians and Europeans wanted to believe migrants were dangerous people who could not be integrated. They threatened our decorum and our well-being. Our instinct was to scare them off. The more well-being there is to protect, the stronger the instinct for self-preservation.

On Wednesday April 6, as many as 250 men, women and children drowned when an overloaded boat carrying them to Europe capsized south of Sicily. This disaster has thrown in our faces a harsh truth which our brains and nerves – numbed by our bourgeois civilization – still have trouble comprehending. It will take days to really understand it. Every time we watch the news, we will understand a new piece of the truth. But at the same time, we will never understand it completely, because the news avoids scaring and hurting us.

But this disaster does hurt. The simple knowledge that it happened and can happen again is upsetting our lives. We can no longer live as we did before. We now know that the migrants are not running away from miserable lives. They are running away from death, and they are passing through death in order to run away.

The desire to improve their lives is not alone enough to drive these migrants for days and nights, to make them sail blindly, using only rudimentary tools in the dark sea and sky. Often the engine breaks. Often the drinking water runs out. All they can do then is pray. This "slow death" can last many days. Sometimes the rescue teams find someone on board who is already dead. The feeble survivors did not have the strength to throw the corpse into the sea. Other times, there are rumors someone was thrown off the ship, without the certainty that he was actually dead.

Wednesday's disaster was a "quick death," though. It was also a brutal death, which arrived with cruel irony when the travelers were close to safety. They saw a rescue boat arriving in the dark. They got scared, they panicked – tussling about inside the boat, and eventually causing it to capsize. Safety turned into death. Sometimes, the passage from life to death is merciless. The "quick death" is a clash with nature. In clashes of these kinds, everyone loses, but the weakest, children and women, lose first. So it happened that one man saved himself while his wife and children died.

We have to remember one more thing in order to really understand migration. All migrants hope these kinds of disasters will not befall them, but in the backs of their minds, they know these tragedies are not impossible. They leave with a warning light blinking in their heads.

We thought those old boats and inexperienced crowds were threatening us, the police, and our civic peace. In the end, though, it's their own fates the migrants are testing. They are fighting for life. If one makes it, he is saving himself and the ones who will follow. In the past, we saw boats crashing against the rocks. The lucky eight or 10 people who saved themselves spoke about the fellow travelers who had died during the journey. But they also hold up two fingers as a victory sign.

Italy and Europe use the power of law to restrain migrants from coming here. But these wayward travelers are driven by the power of despair. The clash is between these powers. Now we know.

Read the original article in Italian.

Photo - Sara Prestianni

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