Flying low over the Mediterranean one dark night, the crew of the Italian Coast Guard surveillance were aircraft were amazed – and concerned – when the interior of the plane was suddenly flooded with a ghostly green light.
“We couldn’t work out what it was,” says Alfio Grasso, one of the officers on board the French-made ATR42 aircraft, which routinely flies just 300 feet above the waves. “Then we realized – the beam was from one of those cheap laser pens that kids play with.”
The laser beam was coming from far below in the inky darkness, from a ramshackle boat packed with dozens of desperate migrants attempting to make the perilous crossing from the coast of Libya to the tiny island of Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost scrap of territory. The migrants – among them West Africans, Eritreans, and Syrians – were trying to attract the attention of any Italian forces in the area, hoping to be rescued.
Their wish came true – the crew of the Coast Guard aircraft alerted the authorities in Rome to the boat’s location and they were picked up by an Italian navy warship and taken to a port in Sicily. But the incident cuts to the heart of an intense debate in Italy over the effectiveness of its efforts to intercept and rescue the dozens of leaky boats that set out from North Africa on an almost daily basis.
It is an exodus of almost biblical proportions – for the past few weeks, around 1,000 migrants have been arriving nearly every day.
On Friday, 1,170 refugees from Mali, Sudan, Syria, and other countries were picked up by an Italian warship and taken to the port of Augusta in Sicily, where they were accommodated in reception centers as they wait to have their futures determined. Many arrived with only the clothes they were wearing, and some were barefoot.
So far this year, more than 25,000 migrants have already reached Italy, compared with 43,000 in the whole of 2013 and just 13,000 in 2012. And the pace is about to pick up considerably, as summer weather conditions ensure placid seas, warm days, and easy sailing conditions.
The authorities fear that by the end of this year the numbers will match the previous record, 2011, the year of the so-called Arab Spring, when more than 62,000 reached Italian shores.
Encouraging the flood
The Coast Guard aircraft is part of an Italian operation codenamed Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) which involves dozens of helicopters, drones, patrol boats, and navy warships tasked with spotting and coming to the aid of the migrant vessels. It was set up last October in response to one of the worst immigration tragedies that Europe had seen – the deaths of more than 350 people after their boat, a former fishing craft, capsized at night within sight of the dusty, cactus-covered coast of Lampedusa.
The operation has undoubtedly saved lives, but critics say it has also unintentionally encouraged people smugglers in North Africa to send even more of their human cargo across the Mediterranean.
Instead of the boats having to sail for days in order to reach Lampedusa or the southern coast of Sicily – the nearest outposts of Europe – they now only have to voyage for a day or so before they are rescued by the Navy or Coast Guard.
The fee that the traffickers charge their “customers” has reportedly dropped as a result, because they are able to provide the boats with less fuel – just enough to get them into the zone patrolled by the Italians.
Criticism of the operation is being led by politicians from center-right parties.
“Mare Nostrum is helping the smugglers and encouraging the invasion of our coasts and should be terminated immediately,” said Matteo Salvini, the head of the anti-immigrant, right-wing Northern League, which is in opposition to the coalition led by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
“We’ve saved many human lives, but we cannot go on like this,” said Pier Ferdinando Casini, the leader of a conservative Catholic party, the UDC.
The operation, which is costing Italy nine million euros ($12.5 million) every month, has also been sharply criticized by Forza Italia, the conservative party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
But the alternatives are hardly more palatable.
Italy is not about to start forcing the boats back to Libya, from where most of them set out – that would be illegal under international law and hard to justify on moral grounds.
It has been suggested by some politicians that Italy should lobby for the European Union to establish offices in African countries where prospective asylum seekers could be processed and then, if granted asylum, shared out between many European countries, rather than having the entire burden falling on Italy.
But many doubt whether the system would work, saying that people traffickers would continue to ply their trade in what has become a multi-billion dollar smuggling business.
They point out that many of the African countries from where the migrants are fleeing have profound law and order problems.
“In Libya, there is no control of the country, and particularly not in [the port city of] Misrata, where many of the refugees are coming from,” says Albrecht Boeselager. He is in charge of global humanitarian operations for the Order of Malta, a Catholic charity which deploys teams of medics to Italian Navy ships to help care for the migrants. “I don’t see an alternative to the current operation, at least not in the short term. We cannot accept hundreds of people drowning in the Mediterranean – even if that means more people coming.”
There were dire warnings this week that the humanitarian crisis is set to worsen dramatically. “On the coast of Libya there are at least 800,000 more ready to cross,” Giovanni Pinto, the head of the immigration and border police agency, told the foreign and defence committees of the Italian Senate. “The system is on the point of collapse. We no longer have enough places in which to accommodate them and local people are tiring of the continual arrival of foreigners.”
Around 30,000 are currently languishing in migrant reception centers, including hastily-converted facilities, waiting to have their asylum applications processed.
“The system is under extreme strain and could collapse entirely if the EU doesn’t help us share the load more fairly,” the interior minister, Angelino Alfano, said on Friday.