October 3, 2013, will go down as one of the deadliest days at the European external borders in decades. It is now thought 363 people have died in one single, tragic incident.
While the continuous, everyday deaths of migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean are met by silence, the magnitude of this "blood bath" spurred the Italian and international media to report it widely.
It was around 3.30am on October 3 when a boat with 518 people, most of them from Somalia and Eritrea, got into distress about 550 metres off the Lampedusa coastline in the Mediterranean. Survivors say their mobile phones had been taken away from them for the journey to avoid detection, so they used their ship’s horn and signalled SOS.
Three fishing boats passed in their vicinity and did not help, nor did they notify the coast guards.
At around 6.20am, somebody on the boat lit a blanket to attract attention. The fire spread and panic broke out. When people moved to one side of the ship, it capsised and sank.
Alerted by screams of people in the water, a boat of local fishermen came to their help and rescued 47 people. The fishermen say they informed the coastguard by 6.40am, and that it then took 45 minutes for them to arrive at the scene – despite being close to the harbour.
This delay is not the only accusation made against the coastguards. Legal charges have been filed against them for failure to assist people in danger. Two boats of the Guardia di Finanza nearby did not join the rescue effort. Also, some of the fishermen report having been hindered in rescuing more people.
The coastguard denies these accusations, but it would not have been the first time help to migrant boats in distress came too late.
The catastrophe is the latest in a series of incidents that have left 19,142 people dead over the past 24 years, 13 of whom died only three days earlier close to a Sicilian beach. And this only includes reported and documented deaths. Many others, having died and disappeared at sea, will never be part of these statistics.
Giusi Nicolini, mayor of Lampedusa, made it explicit: we are witnessing war-like levels of death at Europe’s frontiers.
Nicolini highlighted the fact that three fishing boats had seen and ignored the boat in distress, “because our country brought fishermen who saved human lives to court, charging them with aiding and abetting illegal immigration”. Lampedusa fishermen admitted that they were often hesitant to save migrants, with one of them stating, “this immigration law is killing people”.
Over the past two years, it has become painfully clear what happens when indifference and fear of prosecution replace international maritime law, which prescribes assisting boats in distress.
In 2011, 63 people died on the Mediterranean Sea due to a “catalogue of failures” in responding to their distress calls. Last year, only one of 55 passengers survived a two-week drift on what is one of the best-monitored and yet deadliest seas in the world.
The October 3 incident was not an isolated case. It was not an "accident" that could not have been foreseen or prevented. Instead, it is a gruesome consequence of European Union border and immigration control policies that follow logics of security and restrictionism.
Keeping the "unwanted" out seems to have been, for the past 10-20 years, an objective for which EU member Sstates are willing to incur extreme costs. Hundreds of millions of Euros have been invested in external border controls, and thousands of people have died as a result.
With legal immigration channels being unavailable for those who need them most – the poor, marginalised and persecuted – and steadily increasing controls at and beyond Europe’s borders, it comes as no surprise that those determined to attempt the crossing resort to ever more dangerous routes.
But reactions to the October 3 deaths suggest there is little willingness to rethink these policies.
Calls by politicians across the EU for even better surveillance at sea and even harsher actions against "smugglers" are deeply worrying. It is more than cynical to demand the intensification of those policies that created the conditions leading to the deaths off the coast of Lampedusa.
Policymakers in Italy and beyond hurried to blame "ruthless smugglers" for luring migrants on to unseaworthy boats and exploiting them, but they remained silent on why the smuggling business is booming. Or why relying on such networks is the only hope for many who try to make it to Europe.
Those who are lucky enough to survive the perilous crossing are likely to find themselves in detention for prolonged periods of time and in many cases are under constant threat of deportation.
The 155 survivors of the October 3 catastrophe will be charged with "illegal immigration". This is an offense punishable under Italian law with a 5000 euro fine.
The survivors were brought to the Lampedusa reception centre, which, having a capacity of 250 places, now hosts more than 1000 people.
Despite such harsh laws and conditions, the number of boat arrivals in Italy has not decreased over the past decade. However strongly some politicians keep perpetuating the myth that harsh treatment and strict controls deter migrants, it is simply not true.
[Abridged from Open Democracy.]