Italian rescuers find bodies of 18 people, believed killed by engine fumes, on migrant boat carrying 600 people.
Catania, Italy – Walking slowly and uncertainly down a ramp, clutching onto the handrail as she goes, a heavily pregnant woman takes her first step onto Italian soil.
She is followed by seven more pregnant women and 600 other people disembarking from the HMS Bulwark, a British naval ship that earlier this month began a mission saving boat migrants in the Mediterranean Sea.
The UK’s move was a response to the deaths of an estimated 800 migrants in a single shipwreck last month, drawing attention to the growing humanitarian crisis on Europe’s shores.
As the latest wave of boat migrants disembark in Catania, across the city prosecutors are investigating those allegedly responsible for the recent drownings. They have accused a Tunisian of being at the helm of the ship, allegedly aided by a Syrian.
The Tunisian’s family has denied he was the captain of the doomed vessel.
Announcing the end of preliminary investigations on Friday, prosecutors said survivors claimed the two had tried unsuccessfully to cram even more people onto the unstable boat.
Hungry and vulnerable
Such dangerous conditions endured by migrants at the hands of smugglers have become a common narrative among migrants arriving in Sicily.
Those disembarking from the HMS Bulwark last week said they had run out of food and water before being rescued. As a result they arrived in a vulnerable condition and were quickly confronted with a parade of people on the Catania portside, including medics and various Italian police forces.
In what has become a near-daily routine on the Italian island, migrants are given medical assistance, photographed and identified before being transferred to immigration centres.
Mara Brasile, a volunteer with the Italian Red Cross, said after two years working with migrants she still becomes emotional at port.
“The most moving thing is definitely seeing their smiles. Because the Red Cross is a symbol of protection, everyone knows that, so they understand that we’re here to help them,” Brasile said.
But facilitating the arrival of hundreds of vulnerable people at a time can take hours, and with the sheer number of Italian and international agencies involved, a particular challenge.
“By now we’ve created a certain synergy,” said Brasile. “Even with the difficulties, we manage to more or less adjust.”
Bearing the brunt
Out at sea, commercial vessels are among those directed by the Rome coordination centre to perform rescue operations. Although European ships also patrol the waters, as part of the EU’s Triton mission, the Italian navy still carries the weight of the migration crisis.
Vincenzo Pascale, commander of the Bettica ship, has worked for the Italian navy for 25 years and said his work has become “evermore demanding”.
“The work was always demanding – on the ship it’s 24 hours – but the type of work has changed,” he said. Pascale is frequently in charge of rescue operations with, as he put it, “people in need of help in rough seas and very bad conditions”.
Keeping people calm was the greatest difficulty Pascale said he faced: “When people are in difficulty, they move around in order to be seen and risk the ship capsizing.
“Above all, [navy] personnel are close by and ask them to stay calm and seated. We speak to them in Italian, English, French, and have standard phrases in Arabic.”
Communication is key at every stage of the migrants’ journey to Italy, with interpreters also standing at the Catania portside. Waiting with them is Francine Uenuma, a spokeswoman at Save the Children, who said it is even necessary to let minors know which country there are in.
“We have a cultural mediator who gives them a card which has a number they can call, which goes to us. It also says what their rights are and sometimes it’s very basic; ‘You are in Italy,'” she said.
While the number of arrivals to Italy this year remains relatively stable compared to the same period in 2014, Uenuma said there is a worrying increase in the percentage of unaccompanied minors. The largest proportion of children arriving alone come from Eritrea, Somalia, and Nigeria having often spent months travelling to Libya before getting on a boat.
Whether minors or adults, migrants are often fleeing extreme poverty, instability or conflict in their home countries. Syrians escaping their country’s civil war make up a sizable number and are thought of as relatively wealthy, with smugglers demanding significantly larger fees for their passage.
Prices for a place on a boat vary significantly, often depending on a person’s nationality and the type of vessel, with migrants commonly saying they paid between $1,000 and $2,000 – and an extra fee for a life jacket.
Smugglers normally use rubber dinghies or barely seaworthy fishing boats for their trade, relying on rescuers to come to their aid as they near Italy. Growing instability in Libya has meant the smugglers’ dangerous gamble has not stopped demand, but it has grave human costs.
So far this year about 1,800 migrants are thought to have drowned in the Mediterranean, prompting global calls for more action to be taken. Italy’s appeals for greater help began to be heard at the EU level, months after the country’s dedicated sea rescue mission, Mare Nostrum, came to an end for lack of European support.
The turnaround has seen countries such as the UK send ships to perform rescue operations, despite just months ago London refusing to fund the Italian mission – which saved about 100,000 lives last year – by claiming it acted as a pull factor to migrants.
|Deadly business of migrant smuggling|
Taking down the smugglers
Greater focus now rests on the profiteers of the crisis, with the EU this month announcing its intention to directly target smugglers operating out of Libya. Europe is currently seeking UN approval of its plans, which could see migrant boats destroyed.
But with migrants facing an increasingly desperate situation in Libya, frequently kept in overcrowded conditions by smugglers, concerns have been raised about the potential victims of EU military action.
“When you’ve got people housed in these centres, we’re worried about anything that would cause any humanitarian collateral,” said Uenuma.
As world leaders discuss potential intervention, sea-rescue operations will move forward, while in Sicily, smugglers continue to be tackled through intelligence and the courts.
In their next move, Italian prosecutors must now decide whether the two alleged smugglers of the 800 migrants who died after their ship capsized should face trial.