There is no doubt that the 32 people who lost their lives on the Costa Concordia need and deserve justice. But in a land where values and fundamental rights have been turned upside down, people like Captain Francesco Schettino become celebrities. Newspapers and television continue to follow the story closely, as millions of Italians gawk in curious disdain in front of pictures and videos of the slick skipper's VIP lifestyle.
Very little is said about the hundreds of migrants and refugees who continue to arrive every day along the Sicilian coasts. They come from Syria, Libya, Egypt, sub-Saharan Africa. They -- children, women and men, aboard rundown barges, oftentimes without food nor water -- land on Italian soil in a desperate attempt to build a normal life for themselves and their loved ones. It has become impossible to count the precise number of deaths, the number of human beings who vanish during the crossings.
July 22, 2014. Sixty-five miles off the the coast of Lampedusa. Another ship packed with migrants, refugees, precisely 569, reaches Messina, Sicily. Authorities count 30 deaths, including that of a little boy.
Ashore, a 40-year-old Syrian man tells a different story. As he wipes the tears from his wife's face, a dramatic, horrifying truth unravels:
There were 750 of us on that boat. Only 569 survived. The other 181 died. Many drowned as we moved closer to the Danish mercantile ship that was trying to help us. There were many children. Many of those who were found in the hold were stabbed by other migrants who did not want to let them out, because there was no more room on the deck. Every centimeter of that boat was occupied by all of us. We were piled, one on top of the other, like animals, and with many children, amongst them my son, Mohamed, only 1 year old.
In a recent article, Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the United Nations, faces the ongoing issues tied to migration:
We must recognize the desperation of those who attempt these journeys. From friends or from the media, they know what awaits them. They are aware of the risks and have heard the horror stories. Seeing their options for passage narrowing, they put themselves at the mercy of unscrupulous smugglers, often at enormous expense. They are crammed onto precarious ships that cannot bear the load. They travel at night, when neither border police nor rescue operations can see them.
Equally important, governments should view migration as a profoundly binding dimension of the human experience. Through migration, human beings share an understanding of sorrow, hope, and compassion. Indeed, this understanding has inspired some of the international community's greatest feats of solidarity, such as the 1951 Refugee Convention, which defines a person's right to find safe havens across borders.
The continuing rise in migrant deaths in transit poses a conundrum: as these migrants are pushed toward trafficking and smuggling networks, they are dragged further into the grey areas of the international community's response. For example, the European Union's border police do not have clear search-and-rescue guidelines for migrant ships in distress. Member states are divided on how to address this, and recent discussions in Brussels have only begun to make some progress.
Due to the exceptional inflow of migrants, on Oct. 18, 2013, a humanitarian/military operation called "Mare Nostrum" came into effect in the Strait of Sicily. Its goal: to reinforce another marine military mission named "Constant Vigilance." Active since 2004, it regularly monitors the waters of the strait by using ship and air patrol.
Operation "Mare Nostrum" has a double function: to safeguard life at sea, and to hand over to justice all those who make a profit from illegal trafficking of migrants.
Nonetheless, human beings continue to die, swallowed in the depths of our seas. The time has come when we must ask ourselves how effective our plans to aid have really been. Should we be doing things better? How can we resolve this senseless tragedy?
In a statement released to the press, the mayor of Lampedusa, Giusi Nicolini, states:
"Mare Nostrum" works. It works very well. But it is not the solution to the problem of migration.... These ships carry human beings with life stories. They should not be at sea in the first place. These people -- and now there are Palestinians too -- should not find themselves in the position of having to put their lives in the hands of organized crime. They should be able to ask for help to a humane and more-civilized Europe. "Mare Nostrum" saves as many lives as it can, and Italy deserves credit for this. But again, it is not the solution. Everyone should participate in the rescue missions, even Germany and France. After all, the Mediterranean is a resource for all. We need an organized system at an international level, as well as the active presence of the European community.
As yet another day unfolds in what is an unusually rainy Italian summer, and tourists from many parts of the world visit our "beautiful but wretched country," an old but ever-so-current song comes to mind. It's called "Imagine."