Professor and Nanovic fellow Maurizio Albahari (Anthropology) drew attention again to the plight of migrants to Italy from North Africa with a piece published at CNN earlier in October. The Nanovic Institute had a conversation with him, as follows.
What happened off the coast of Lampedusa on October 3rd?
After several hours in distress, adrift off the coast of Lampedusa, somebody on the overcrowded migrant boat ignited blankets to generate smoke and call for help—it is plausible that in Libya smugglers had confiscated cell phones. People on board did not realize what was happening and panicked. The boat capsized. 366 young men, women, and children perished. 155 were eventually rescued by private boats and by the Italian armed forces. Most of the victims had fled the authoritarian country of Eritrea, where among other constraints young people face the obligation of indefinite military conscription and forced labor.
Is North African migration to Europe a temporary phenomenon, or is it part of some larger pattern?
Europe needs to understand that Egypt and Libya—countries which are hosting economic and forced migrants from the rest of Africa and the Middle East—are currently facing economic and political instability, sectarian and regional violence, and a surge in xenophobia. In these conditions, migration to Europe will continue, and North Africa will remain a region of origin and transit for maritime migrants.
Why is it illegal for migrants to get on planes and ferries and leave their countries? Don't such laws, and the Bossi-Fini law of 2002 in Italy, contravene Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? If so, what pressure for reform, if any, can be brought to bear?
The vast majority of would-be economic immigrants from African, Middle Eastern, and Asian countries cannot legally travel to Italy and to the EU without first securing a job contract while in their countries. Forced migrants, including Syrians, Somalis, and Eritreans, can apply for asylum only after physically arriving to European countries by unauthorized means.
What is the most important thing European organizations can do to help?
Bring policymakers to realize that smugglers are not the cause of migration. Thus, for displaced and forced migrants legal channels for asylum application and humanitarian protection need to be developed prior to those migrants enriching criminal smuggler networks and risking their lives in the Mediterranean. More broadly, the EU--if it is truly uncomfortable about the twenty thousand people who have perished while trying to reach its soil--needs to develop a more rational, coherent, and homogenous asylum, immigration, and family reunification policy.
The official memorial service for the victims was held in Agrigento, not Lampedusa, and excluded the 155 survivors. How do you interpret these choices?
The Italian Government has delivered a memorial service. This is unprecedented, as it honored non-citizens. But Enrico Letta, Italy’s Prime Minister, had promised official state funerals. In reality, victims had already been buried, in Agrigento and elsewhere in Sicily. The request of survivors to attend was not accommodated either, as they are still detained in Lampedusa. And many in the Eritrean community cannot understand why the Eritrean ambassador in Italy was invited, when it is precisely from the Eritrean Government that their brothers and sisters are massively escaping from. In practice, the people who should have been at the center of the memorial service, including Lampedusa’ s citizens and administrators, have understood the memorial as a mere ceremony, rather than a healing ritual, and as a parade for national politicians. More recently, Prof. Albahari has addressed the place of outsiders in Europe in general.