Lampedusa Shipwreck Spotlights Perils of Migration

“Migration: The Movement of Peoples” is one of the justice priorities of the Dominican Family worldwide. The poignancy of this global phenomenon is hard to ignore, in light of the tragedy off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa last week, when a boat carrying African migrants sank, killing more than 230 men, women and children. The victims were mostly from Eritrea and Somalia.

In light of this most recent tragedy, the European Commission is proposing that the European Union initiate a Mediterranean-wide search and rescue mission to intercept and rescue migrant boats in distress. This would replace the current rescue efforts which, while well-meaning, are woefully inadequate compared to the pressing needs.

Not unlike ourselves and the immigration issue here in the United States, the members of the European Union have not been able to reach agreement on a common migration and asylum policy. As a result, it is countries like Italy, Greece and Malta, with “open borders” by virtue of their coast lines, which bear the brunt of mass migration. And it is the desperate sea of humanity caught up in this movement who are at great peril.

According to BBC, tens of thousands of migrants make the treacherous crossing from North Africa to Sicily, Lampedusa, and other Mediterranean islands each year. While accidents are common, last week’s tragedy is considered one of the deadliest on record. Of course the common question is, Why do people leave? The short answer is simply poverty, conflict, persecution and, increasingly, climate change. The UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), estimates that between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30 of this year, 30,100 migrants reached Italy on boats from North Africa. The largest groups were from Syria (7,500), Eritrea (7,500) and Somalia (3,000). Both Syria and Somalia have been devastated by war; and in Eritrea, thousands are either held as political prisoners or conscripted into the army.

Refugees fleeing persecution have a right to asylum under international law. However, the massive numbers coming ashore all at once make it hard for authorities to identify those who have a legitimate asylum claim. Adding to this dilemma is the fact that many people lack the necessary documentation to prove nationality, place of origin and even birth. These are people who quite literally have nowhere to go, or, what the UN calls “stateless” persons.

Pope Francis spoke of the Lampedusa tragedy as “a disgrace which must not be repeated.” And a Berlin newspaper noted that “In the face of catastrophe everyone is blaming unprincipled smugglers, or is even demanding national mourning. But it is clear what must be done… Europe must open itself up again to those seeking shelter. Otherwise the dying will continue.”

The tragedy off the coast of Lampedusa provided a poignant backdrop to the UN’s High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development held last week in New York. Speaker after speaker referenced the event, highlighting the need for the international community to deal with the issue on an international level. It is clear that the notable absence of fair regulation and comprehensive policy create almost insurmountable vulnerabilities and challenges for migrants and their families—among them discrimination, violence and human rights violations, lack of access to basic social services, family separation—and even death. No country can effectively govern international migration alone; a global partnership is desperately needed.

To that end, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has issued an Eight Point Agenda for Action which includes:

  • Protection of human rights of all migrants
  • Elimination of migrant exploitation, including human trafficking
  • Addressing the plight of stranded migrants
  • Improving public perception of migrants
  • Integrating migration into the Post-2015 development agenda

Here in the United States, there is little movement on comprehensive immigration reform. And just as is true on the international front, the notable absence of fair regulation and comprehensive policy create almost insurmountable vulnerabilities and challenges for migrants and their families—among them discrimination, violence and human rights violations, lack of access to basic social services, imprisonment and family separation—and even death.

In a recent Opinion piece in the New York Daily News, Archbishop Timothy Dolan had this to say:

For generations, men and women have come to America’s shores in search of a better way of life for themselves and their families, and we’re justly proud of our heritage as a nation that welcomes people of good will. But today, no one can be proud of the enormous underclass of undocumented workers… millions of our neighbors who live on the margins, have their families fractured and are easily exploited. We can’t be proud of the hundreds of migrants who die in the desert each year in their quest to support their families back home.

Even as Congress is deplorably deadlocked, and our government has come to a grinding halt, we need to keep up the pressure on our elected officials to do the right thing and adopt comprehensive immigration reform that includes an earned path to citizenship; sees family re-unification as primary; secures due process for immigrants and their families; improves refugee and asylum laws; and most important of all—addresses the root causes of unauthorized immigration; namely, the desperate desire of countless men and women to enjoy some of the things that you and I so easily take for granted.

Related Links

Lampedusa boat disaster: Death toll rises to 232
BBC News Europe

Lampedusa children’s drawings tell story of migrant shipwreck
Huffington Post

Appeal for the opening of a humanitarian corridor for the European right of asylum
Progetto: Melting Pot Europa
Link shared by Br. Gerald Stookey, OP