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The migrants making the deadly journey to freedom


umbertino
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The Telegraph joins an Italian Coast Guard aircraft searching the Mediterranean for migrants making the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean to Lampedusa

 

 

By Nick Squires, Lampedusa

9:04AM BST 23 May 2014

 

 

 

The Italian Coast Guard surveillance plane swung low over the glittering Mediterranean, thundering above the waves at a height of just 300ft.

 

Officer Alessio Leocata trains his eyes on the deep blue waters picking out a scattering of fishing boats innocently plying their way home.

 

 

But then he spots something altogether more sinister - a boat equipped with two powerful outboard engines with not a soul on board.

 

Zooming in on the vessel with an infra-red camera, so powerful that it can discern the name of a boat from several miles away, Leocata confirms that it is empty.

 

 

“It looks like it’s been abandoned by people smugglers,” said Capt Bruno Massimiliano, the pilot. “Sometimes they place a GPS device on it so that they can come back and retrieve it, other times they just leave it in the middle of the sea.”

 

The whereabouts of its occupants - likely to have been dozens of migrants hoping to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa, a few hours’ sailing to the north - was a mystery.

 

A short time later, a blip appears on the radar. This time it is a boat with people on board, heading north from the coast of Libya.

 

 

When it is intercepted a few hours later by an Italian Coast Guard patrol boat, it is found to contain 320 Eritrean migrants.

 

A severely dehydrated woman and her young child had to be taken by helicopter to Lampedusa for urgent hospital treatment while the rest were transferred to an Italy navy frigate and taken to the port of Pozzallo in Sicily.

 

For Officer Leocata, the sightings are now no longer a surprise -they are routine.

 

He is at the sharp end of an operation code-named by Italy “Mare Nostrum” (Our Sea), designed to intercept and rescue the huge number of hastily-constructed boats full of desperate refugees that almost daily ply the dangerous route between the coast of North Africa and Italy’s southern-most shores.

 

Italy says it is being overwhelmed by the sheer number of migrants who are crossing from the North African coast - mostly from Libya - in search of a better life in Europe.

 

It is not uncommon for 1,000 or more to be picked up in a single day.

 

 

So far this year, 36,000 migrants have reached Italy, compared with 43,000 in the whole of 2013 and just 13,000 in 2012.

 

Angelino Alfano, the interior minister, has said that unless Italy gets more help from the rest of Europe, it will simply allow the refugees in its reception centres cross its borders to neighbouring countries.

 

"The European Union has two options: either it comes to the Mediterranean to put the EU flag on Mare Nostrum or we will let migrants with right of asylum leave for other countries," he wrote on Twitter.

 

The authorities fear that by the end of this year the numbers will match the previous record, 2011, the year of the Arab Spring, when more than 62,000 came.

 

The Italian government, citing information gleaned by its intelligence services, believes that are up to 800,000 migrants languishing in grim camps in Libya and other parts of northern Africa, waiting to make the crossing to what they view as the promised land.

 

 

There are middle-class Syrians fleeing the murderous civil war in their homeland, West Africans from Mali and Burkina Faso in search of jobs and Eritreans and Somalis escaping the chaos in the Horn of Africa.

 

They pay smugglers on average $3,000 to $4,000 to get them to Europe, officials told The Telegraph.

 

Before they even attempt the perilous sea voyage, many have already been through hell - crossing the Sahara by truck or foot, beaten by gangs of smugglers, sold by one trafficking group to another, the women routinely raped.

 

“I performed surgery on a young African man who had machete wounds to his hand, who said he had been attacked by smugglers in order to strike terror into the rest of his group - and another man, an Egyptian, who had a gunshot wound to his leg,” said Giada Bellanca, a doctor from the Order of Malta, a charity which deploys teams of medics on Italian navy ships.

 

The pace of arrivals is expected to pick up dramatically as summer approaches and sea conditions improve.

 

Lampedusa’s overcrowded migrant reception centre was closed early this year after controversy over its treatment of refugees, so new arrivals are now taken instead to centres in Sicily.

 

Around 30,000 are currently languishing in these facilities, waiting to have their asylum applications processed.

 

After a day or two, many others simply walk out of the main gates and disappear - headed for the most part towards wealthier northern European countries like Germany, France and the UK.

 

In order to evade the Dublin Regulation, which stipulates that migrants must have their asylum applications processed in the country in which they first arrive, some migrants paint their fingers with nail varnish or strong glue so that they cannot be fingerprinted.

 

Having avoided identification, they are then able to leave Italy and lodge their asylum applications in the country of their choice, officials say.

 

“The system is on the point of collapse,” Giovanni Pinto, the director of immigration at the interior ministry, told a parliamentary committee last month.

 

“We no longer have enough places in which to accommodate them and local people are tiring of the continual arrival of foreigners. On the coasts of Libya there are at least 800,000 more ready to cross.”

 

 

Operation Mare Nostrum was initiated last October, after more than 350 migrants lost their lives when their boat capsized within sight of Lampedusa, Italy’s southern-most territory, in a tragedy that led to soul-searching and prompted calls for something to be done to address the migration crisis.

 

But it is now at the centre of an intense debate, with critics, many of them politicians from the centre-Right, claiming that far from deterring migrants, it has encouraged more of them to cross the Mediterranean.

 

The Italian navy and Coast Guard are acting as an unwitting “taxi service” for the migrant boats, with smugglers sure that the boats will be intercepted a day or two out from the North African coast, critics say.

 

As a result, they are able to supply the boats with less fuel than before and the cost of making the crossing has reportedly dropped significantly, making it affordable to even more asylum seekers.

 

“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.

 

It is hugely expensive, costing Italy €9 million a month, according to Mr Alfano, the interior minister.

 

Italy has repeatedly called for more money and resources to be provided by the European Union to stem an exodus of almost biblical proportions.

 

“In the public perception, many people think migrants come in search of a better life - for economic reasons,” said Albrecht Boeselager, a senior member of the Order of Malta who is responsible for its humanitarian missions worldwide.

 

“But in fact there are many other factors driving this - some are politically persecuted at home, others are lured by very powerful criminal trafficking bands."

 

Meanwhile, the boats keep coming. Most of the migrants arrive with only the clothes they are wearing, and many are barefoot.

 

“There are old people, pregnant women, tiny babies. Many of them are not even wearing shoes,” said Dr Bellanca, on board a Coast Guard launch as it cruised over the exact spot where the migrant boat capsized last October, off the coast of Lampedusa.

 

“But when they see the Italian flag, they cry with relief. That means everything to them.”

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/italy/10851041/The-migrants-making-the-deadly-journey-to-freedom.html

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