09/15/2014 03:27 pm ET Updated Nov 15, 2014

Immigration Reform Is Needed to Stop the Death and Exploitation of Immigrants

Each year, starting with the arrival of summer until early winter, when weather permits, the Mediterranean Sea becomes a scene of tragedy and desolation. Boats flood the beaches of Italy, carrying migrants from Africa and the Middle East packed like sardines in a tin can, with people hopeful of finding a better life in Europe. Landing on Italy's coast is not the end of their trip, as the Italian peninsula is far from being the land of plenty but serves as the entry point to other European destinations, assuming they will make it there alive and undetected.

The numbers are staggering. Last year, some 45,000 people crossed the Mediterranean to land in Italy and Malta, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and their reports about the deaths in the past twenty years are astounding: over 20.000 lost their lives in these waters, but the boat-migrant count is higher if we consider those who disappeared untraced at sea. These are numbing figures that shouldn't fade into the abstract of our minds.

2013 saw the Lampedusa accident, when a migrant boat burst into flames a few yards from the shore, capsized and sank with a death toll of around 350 people, most of which were women and children. Following the accident, Italy launched the Mare Nostrum rescue operation (an EU funded, cross-border project) in order to control and manage migration flows and emergencies. What happened within eyesight of the tiny island is only one of many other tragedies that take place each year in this stretch of sea separating Africa from Southern Italy, events that Italian President Giorgio Napolitano called "A succession of slaughters of innocents."

Italy has long been a country of emigrants rather than a destination for immigrants. One would expect that the plight of generations past and 30 years of political debate would have produced model laws and a concrete approach to immigration. To the contrary, Italy still shows some questionable laws that look at the issue from a security and public order angle, rather than from an employment and social policy perspective.

I asked Cecile Kyenge, former Minister for Integration in Italy and now Member of the European Parliament, what is her position on this matter. "We need an organic law for asylum seekers, which is missing in Italy today and which should include the integration process beyond the mere influx management. This is the only way to get out of the continuing emergency. We also need to review the rules on immigration, beginning with the Bossi-Fini law, which is based on an exclusion principle. We should introduce inclusion, acceptance and legality concepts in the laws. We have to get over the current repressive and security-based approach. Every political action should be person-centric," she says.

A long time human right activist, a physician with a specialization in ophthalmology, Congolese by birth and then student in Italy, where she remained and now lives, Cecile Kyenge decided to get involved in politics when she realized how many people were voiceless, with migrants being among the most vulnerable. Her political activities began in Modena with the Democrats of the Left and took her up to the ministerial nomination in 2013, when she became Italy's first black cabinet minister. But when one chooses not to stand up and be a witness rather than a participant there is a price to pay. "I'm not a surrender" she tells me "it has been tough, the cost is high, I still live under protection for the attacks and the threats I have received. The real change will be measured also by this metric, when a person will be really free to express himself or herself. Today the threats to me continue, someone tries to disguise them by passing them off as jokes. I'm being attacked for my skin color, because I am a new citizen, because I am a woman and I am educated. On top of that, there are my opinions, that I strongly support every day; the result is an explosive mix for the extremists."

Dr. Kyenge has some ideas on how to fight at the root the human trafficking conducted by organized criminal groups: "If Europe processed the asylum applications directly in the refugee camps beyond the Mediterranean Sea, accepting a certain quota of refugees each year, the hope for an orderly acceptance by a European Country would deter migrants from undertaking a perilous, illicit trip, risking their lives on flimsy boats and would scale down the migrating flows to manageable volumes, thus granting them an ideal integration process into our society."

Obviously, it shouldn't be a stand-alone act but must be accompanied by a set of measures to eliminate the root factors, as today human trafficking has become a commercial commodity within the criminal market. "Organized crime gets new blood for its clandestine labor from environments with high social discontent, where the administration is absent, I mean in terms of social security not of public order, and statistics show that the migrant crime rate -- considering the same age reference ranges and the fact that a migrant has no easy access to alternative detention measures -- is similar to the Italian population rates. So, an immigration law that easily drives the irregular migrants deeper underground forcing them to accept any condition in order to get an employment contract when their residence permit is close to its expiry, creates risky pockets of despair. We must focus on promoting social cohesion through more social justice, it's the only way to a culture of legality. Hope is a powerful force. If we leveraged on this feeling rather than on repressive policies we would get better results."

Too many lives slip into anonymity and sink into numbers, the UNHCR Annual Report says that in 2013 people internally displaced due to violence or conflicts reached a record of 33.3 million. CEAS and Dublin III are probably right on paper but in terms of implementation they may fall down. "I think a greater effort is also required" continues Dr. Kyenge "fully embracing the spirit of the European treaties based on solidarity and co-responsibility of the member States. There is great inequality in the reception systems of Northern and Southern Europe, and the burden rests primarily on the coastal Countries. Today, a shared management of European asylum is necessary also financially, fixing Country quotas if needed. But we must equally give hope to those who flee wars that they will reach Europe safely. We cannot isolate ourselves into fortress Europe, pretending not to see what happens along our borders and believing to be free of it. We must give new momentum to the cross-border cooperation. The Mare Nostrum operation represents a great cultural revolution with the humanitarian value and the life-saving potential at its heart, but leaves in the background the security issue. Replacing it with Frontex would be a step backwards."

Dr. Kyenge, do you think it's possible, today, to propose strong values and a culture of coexistence? How do we start over again?

"I believe it is, but we should start by giving a human face to politics, by placing the individual at the heart of every activity and by matching a life project with a political one. Let's start from here. Let's give a face to all the issues, to avoid lacking in substantiality. Then, we must recover the awareness of the civil rights that have been won. That's what we have lost over time and we are no longer able to place the rights at the center of our challenges."