At 2 a.m. on a Libyan beach, the boat casts off for Lampedusa. It smells of pink and gold sea bream, amberjack and barracuda, but tonight the catch is 72 Ethiopians, Nigerians, Eritreans, Ghanaians and Sudanese, grey with cold. Packed standing or dangling feet off the deck, each paid about US$1,000 to the smuggler who arranged their passage, then threw in two satellite phones, heaved them into water, and waved. In the afternoon the outboard motor runs out of gas. Someone faints. At 5 p.m., someone panics and calls the Italian coast guard. But no rescue boat ever comes. Only nine survived that two-week drift back to the Libyan shore in April 2012. The others joined the nearly 20,000 people who have died over the past 26 years attempting illegal passage across the Mediterranean into the European Union*. Three out of four would have had legitimate claims to asylum.
* Source: http://fortresseurope.blogspot.it/
To keep weight down on crowded boats, smugglers discourage excess supplies. But after days at sea with limited freshwater, those who make it to Lampedusa are usually delirious with dehydration.
One out of every five irregular immigrants in the EU enters through Italy. Those unlikely to win refugee status throw away their passports before arrival, because if your nationality isn’t identifiable, you can’t be sent home.
In 2013, 700 people died trying to navigate the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe, according to the International Organization of Migration. The most common causes of death are thirst, exposure and drowning.
Among Asian, South American and Central American migrants worldwide, women outnumber men. But among Lampedusa’s arrivals in 2013, mainly from Syria, Eritrea and Somalia, there were five men for every woman.
Traditional Tunisian mezwed music lyrics usually describe family, race and immigration. During the 2011 Arab Spring, Tunisians fleeing revolutionary chaos were the most common arrivals in Lampedusa. Today, Syrians outnumber all other incoming migrants.
By national law, Italy cannot expel or detain minors, no matter how they arrive on its territory. In 2013, more than 5,200 unaccompanied children were smuggled in by sea. One quarter of them ended up fleeing the communities where they were temporarily hosted.
Facilitating illegal immigration is illegal in Italy, so when two Italian fishing boats passed a capsized vessel of 500 Eritreans in October 2013, they didn’t stop. The migrants lit a fire to attract attention, but it spread onto spilled fuel and killed 350.
The Italian island of Lampedusa is only 113 kilometers north of Tunisian shores and 366 kilometers away from Tripoli, Libya. Because the migrant boats that aim for it often have no captain, passengers with sailing experience get discounted seats.