Posted on July 14, 2004

A Storm In A Port

Guardian (UK), Jul. 13

After three weeks adrift in the Mediterranean, rejected at every European door their ship knocked on, 37 Africans have finally made it to a concrete shed surrounded by high fences and barbed wire on Italian soil.

Rickety wooden vessels and perished rubber dinghies bursting with exhausted, dehydrated Africans wash up daily on the shores of Sicily and southern Italy, but this week’s case is different: rather than ending peacefully, it has turned into a criminal case, with three members of the aid group involved under arrest, their ship seized and relations strained between Italy, Germany and Malta.

The 37 Africans arrived at Porto Empedocle, on the southern coast of Sicily, on Monday in a pristine boat with no holes in it. Their bright, white T-shirts were emblazoned with the logo of the aid agency that brought them into land. None was starving or dying of thirst, though many were supposedly suffering from psychological disturbances.

The men had floated between Sicily, Malta and Libya for 21 days. For the last 12 days, the coast of Italy had been within sight but out of reach. The Italian authorities had refused to receive the ship, arguing that it ought to have docked at its first port of call, Malta.

But pressure mounted on Italy as the UN, the Vatican and priests on board the ship urged the country to provide humanitarian assistance to the men, reported to be Sudanese refugees fleeing the carnage that has left thousands dead in Darfur in recent months. From the ship, messages warning that desperate men were threatening to jump overboard became increasingly urgent.

The German organisation Cap Anamur said its eponymous ship had rescued the men after it found them stranded in a rubber dinghy at sea.

On arrival, three Cap Anamur staff were arrested. The president, Elias Bielder, Stefan Schmidt, the captain of the aid ship, and a crew member, Vladimir Daschkewitsch, now face charges of aiding and abetting illegal immigration.

The Italian authorities believe the Cap Anamur, which has a history of provocative missions at sea dating back to its involvement with the Vietnamese boat people, was using the African men to make a point: they say the aid group tried to pull heartstrings by claiming the migrants were Sudanese refugees when in fact most had come from Ghana and Nigeria.

The Cap Anamur staff deny the accusations, saying their only aim was to get the men to safety and give them the right to claim asylum in Europe if they needed it.

“This is a devastating precedent because it shows Italy to be the soft underbelly of Europe,” said the Italian justice minister, Roberto Castelli, who is reported to be furious at the prospect of his country having its arm twisted into receiving the migrants.

“The message going out to the world is that the country has no way of controlling its own borders, and anyone who wants to can enter.”

The interior minister, Giuseppe Pisanu, condemned the case as a flagrant example of “organisations cunningly exploiting laws and regulations in favour of illegal immigration”.

Christofer Hein, director of the Italian Council for Refugees, leapt to the defence of the German aid workers. “These men have publicly admitted to making mistakes, but it’s a bit much to compare them with criminals, who take money for their illicit activities,” he said. “It’s a signal against humanitarian organisations.”

Italy’s tough attitude to the aid workers highlights the country’s sense of vulnerability, which stems from its 4,700 miles of coastline and reputation as a porous, soft option for economic migrants and political refugees.

Italy has long been seen by African migrants as a point of entry into Fortress Europe. However, most travel on from there to settle in other European countries. According to UN figures, Italy is currently host to only 9,169 refugees, compared with Germany’s 903,000. Last year, Italy rejected 80% of asylum requests.

European legislation says migrants in distress should be received by the country to which they are nearest, but Italy has argued that since the Cap Anamur is legally German, the Africans ought to be given asylum in Germany. The German authorities do not agree.

Collaboration between Italy and Albania has stemmed the flow of eastern European migrants in recent years. However, illegal migrants are passing through Greece instead, and the numbers of boats arriving from the coast of Libya loaded with Middle Eastern and African men, women and children, has soared.

At the peak of the influx, last summer, Italy’s xenophobic Northern League party suggested the Italian navy should fire on the arriving vessels to turn them back. Italian coastguards do patrol the waters south of Sicily and are supposed to be increasing cooperation with their Libyan counterparts now that Libya’s relations with the west have warmed.

Italy has long argued that Malta does not take in its fare share of the shipwrecked would-be immigrants that float in its direction, instead forwarding them to Lampedusa, a Sicilian outpost island that is nearer Africa than mainland Europe.

In recent years, Italy has tightened regulations on expelling illegal migrants, but the country remains the last in Europe not to have firm legislation on asylum. A bill is to go before parliament this week to try to end that vacuum, but it has been strongly criticised by leftwing politicians and aid agencies such as Amnesty International and Médecins Sans Frontières, who argue that it is likely to distort international law on the right to asylum and a country’s duty to provide protection for refugees.

Currently, asylum seekers are given a three-month, renewable stay permit and pocket money for 45 days while their requests are assessed. Those found to be illegal immigrants are given 48 hours to leave the country before being forced to go.

Meanwhile, the administrative and legal process is already under way for the Cap Anamur 37. None is deemed to be a genuine asylum seeker; all are likely to be expelled and back to square one.