Tides of Syrian, African refugees head for Italy despite dangers at sea

Tides of Syrian, African refugees head for Italy despite dangers at sea
Migrants wait to disembark from an Italian coast guard vessel in Porto Empedocle, Italy, on March 4, 2015. In a dramatic sea rescue north of Libya, a flotilla of ships saved more than 900 migrants, though 10 died, Italian officials said. (Francesco Malavolta / Associated Press)

Driven by war, oppression and poverty from their home countries, about 9,000 migrants have already sailed across the Mediterranean to Italy this year, mainly from Libya, where rising violence and fear of militants loyal to Islamic State have hastened their departure.

The number of people paying traffickers about $1,000 to seek a new life in Europe has increased from the same wintertime period last year, suggesting that last year's record number of 170,000 migrants will be topped this year, according to United Nations reports.

Migrants seem undeterred by the more than 3,000 who drowned last year, or the 300 who perished last month when their flimsy dinghies sank in winter storms, the U.N. says. Adding to that tragedy: 29 sub-Saharan Africans who were saved from 27-foot-high waves by an Italian coast guard launch died of hypothermia on the deck of the vessel because there was no room in the packed cabin away from the lashing wind and icy spray.

On Tuesday, 10 more drowned as more than 900 migrants were rescued off the Libyan coast.


In January, the relentless horror stories took on a surreal note when Italian rescuers were amazed to discover rusty cargo ships laden with hundreds of Syrian refugees bearing down on Italy's coast on automatic pilot. Nobody appeared to be at the helm.

A decade after Africans began to make the crossing to escape oppressive conditions, the migration has turned Lampedusa, an Italian island just 70 miles from the African coast, into "the new Checkpoint Charlie between the Northern and Southern hemispheres," Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said. The Mediterranean has become "a cemetery without tombstones," Italian charity Caritas said.

Last year, the 170,000 the U.N. said made it to Italy by sea included 42,000 Syrians fleeing the civil war and 34,000 Eritreans escaping brutal, forced conscription at home. Nigerians, Gambians, Malians, Palestinians and others made up the rest of the tally.

Technology has accelerated migration. Many carry smart phones on which they can check online reviews of traffickers who advertise through Facebook, and can keep in touch via WhatsApp with relatives who made it to Europe. Once at sea, they use satellite phones provided by traffickers to alert rescuers.

What has not changed over the last decade is the inability of European politicians to staunch the flow.

In 2008, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi struck a deal with then-Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi to mount joint sea patrols to turn back the boats, but the arrangement was struck down by the European Court of Human Rights, which said legitimate asylum seekers would have been turned away.

In 2011, political upheaval spurred 26,000 Tunisians to make the crossing, many of whom headed straight through Italy to find relatives in France. That year, after Kadafi suppressed similar "Arab Spring" protests in Libya, North Atlantic Treaty Organization aircraft bombed the country and triggered the end of Kadafi's reign, resulting in lawlessness that gave traffickers the chance to dispatch boatloads of African migrants undisturbed.

Syrians showing up in Libya frequently paid more to stay on deck during passages while Africans were consigned to the hold. On arrival in Italy, the Syrians, often educated professionals, were just as likely to ask for good Wi-Fi as a hot meal, aid workers say.

Well aware of a European Union rule that refugees must apply for asylum in the country where they make landfall, most Syrians have refused to identify themselves to Italian officials, who in turn have not prevented them from boarding trains to Germany or Sweden, where relatives, and stronger economies, awaited.

Last year, migrants at sea got a helping hand from the Italian navy, which dispatched helicopter carriers, drones and even a submarine to pluck them from the Mediterranean, an operation launched after the death of 366 Africans in October 2013 when their boat sank close to Lampedusa.

But with one eye on growing voter resentment of migrants, not to mention the $10-million monthly cost of the effort, which operated close to the Libyan coast, Italy's Alfano has pushed the EU to take charge, only to discover that many European capitals believed the Italian navy operation was only encouraging potentially fatal sailings.

The compromise was the launching in November of Operation Triton, a lower-cost EU-managed patrol mission that extended no farther than 30 miles from the Italian coast. It has been denounced as useless by refugee aid groups.

Syrians appeared to take note, with almost half opting this winter to sail from Turkey on old cargo ships that hugged the Greek coast to avoid winter storms.

But boats loaded with sub-Saharan Africans and Eritreans continue to leave Libya, and now traffickers seemed to be in a hurry themselves, reportedly forcing one group onto their dinghy at gunpoint. New arrivals at Lampedusa said the traffickers were worried that their customers would be forcibly recruited by Islamic State fighters taking over towns in Libya.

Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti said she was concerned that militants would mingle with migrants boarding to reach Italy, where they could stage attacks.

"After the NATO bombing in 2011, there should have been a military intervention in Libya," said Eritrean priest Father Mussie Zerai, who is based in Italy and has been fielding phone calls from boats in distress since 2003. "Now the militias in the country are armed to the teeth and we risk another Somalia, Iraq or Afghanistan. We can expect more boats to arrive."

Kington is a special correspondent.