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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Calabria: the outcome of years of breaking the law

The deaths of (at least) 61 people following a shipwreck off the Italian coast are the result of the combined effects of almost a decade of EU policies which are not only illegal but have failed even to achieve even the modest and immoral aims they set out to.

Fortunately, there is a very simple solution, which will end the deaths and the sense of panic and crisis into which the EU and its neighbouring states have fallen: obey the law.

At least 62 men, women and children have been killed after a boat smashed into rocks off the coast of Calabria, Italy.

It is not entirely clear what time the disaster occurred, as this boat was travelling without record or oversight, but some time early on Sunday morning (26 February 2023) seems to be agreed by most people.

The boat had been carrying ‘140-150’ people according to some reports, while others report as many as 200 people had been aboard. So far, 81 people have been rescued, and have been taken to hospitals and shelters in Crotone, not far from where the boat sank.

Dozens of bodies washed up on the shores of Stecatto di Cutro, while others have been pulled from the sea.

The majority of the people on board were from Afghanistan, while others are said to be people from Iran and Pakistan.

Pushbacks from Greece

We should perhaps begin by making a bitter and dispiriting comment: this incident is far from unusual.

While the number of people to have died (which may well rise in the coming hours and days) is higher than usual, it is far from the highest on record in the Mediterranean, or even close to the Italian coast (more than 360 people were killed off Lampedusa on 3 October 2013, for example. More than 700 died off the coast of Libya on Sunday 19 April 2015), and people often die on the Mediterranean (a sentence we should never have to write or read), as readers of this service will be very well aware.

For example, at least 14 people have died in three ‘incidents’ since Sunday 5 February off the Greek coast (Sunday 5 February 2023 At least five killed in latest Aegean shipwreck; Tuesday 7 February 2023 At least five killed in second shipwreck in three days; Friday 24 February 2023 At least four people killed in Samos catastrophe) and in total at least 22 people have been killed in just 54 days (to Thursday 23 February): one person killed in less than every two and a half days.

In the Mediterranean as a whole, over the same period – and so not including Sunday’s catastrophe – 225 people have been killed: more than four people are being killed killed every day in the Mediterranean Sea.

Since 1 January 2014, 25,983 men women and children have been killed. And we should note that that number may be far higher, because these are just the people we know to have died.

But we should look closely at the causes of Sunday’s disgrace, because it unites most, if not all, of the ‘threads’ of EU (and other) states’ illegal activity regarding people travelling to find safe places to live, learn and work.

First, we should note that unlike most disasters off the Italian coast, the people killed on Sunday had set out not from Libya or Tunisia, but from Izmir, on Türkiye’s west coast.

As regular readers will know, the practice of travelling from Türkiye to Italy, even though the distance to the Greek Aegean islands from Türkiye is just two to ten miles, has increased in the last two years, mainly because of the Greek government’s brutal and vicious treatment of people who arrive on Greek territory: since 1 March 2020, the standard response has been to beat people, steal their possessions, in some case abuse them, in some to kill them, and in all to push them back to Türkiye – a dangerous and entirely illegal activity.

From 1 March 2020 to 31 January 2023, the Greek government has pushed back at the very least 55,341 men, women and children, compared to just 19,393 people registered as new arrivals on the islands.

Seventy-four per cent – three in every four – people who have attempted to reach the Aegean islands have been pushed back. Some have died. All have had all their possessions stolen, and almost all have been beaten by uniformed Greek officers. (we might note here that as we have previously stated, the Greek government itself claims to have pushed back 260,000 people from its borders in 2022 alone. This also includes people pushed back at the Evros River)

We should point out, as we seem to need to do on a depressingly regular basis, that none of these people have done anything wrong. It is entirely legal to leave any state on Earth. And it is entirely legal to travel to any state in order to apply for asylum.

It is in fact the legal duty of every signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Refugee Protocol (and bear in mind countries voluntarily signed-up to these laws, unlike the laws imposed upon individuals) to allow people to enter and to apply for asylum if they choose to do so.

That is, the Greek government is not ‘just’ behaving immorally and barbarically towards defenceless men, women and children, but is actually illegal. The Greek government has carried out at least 55,341 crimes in the Aegean Sea in less than three years, and in the last year alone, by its own admission, 260,000 at all its borders.

This practice has killed people at sea, and on the islands. And it has driven an increasing number to take the far longer, and far more dangerous, ‘route’ from Türkiye to Italy to attempt to avoid being beaten, robbed, abused, possibly killed and definitely pushed back.

And people have already died as a result. For example, eight people drowned in a catastrophic ‘attempted rescue’ by the Greek Coastguard on 20 June 2022, off Aghios Georgios in the Cyclades, while trying to reach Italy from Türkiye. And in four separate disasters in Christmas week (21-24 December 2021) 61 people drowned in Greek territorial waters while trying to reach Italy from Türkiye.

That is, Sunday’s disaster was far from an ‘outlier’: death is what happens in the Mediterranean Sea. And it is entirely preventable. In fact, we have caused it.

The EU (and others)

In the aftermath of Sunday’s catastrophe, a number of politicians and other public figures have commented on the ‘tragedy’ and how ‘saddened’ they have been by the deaths of at least 61 men, women and children.

We might note that no such statements came from most of these people when people making the same journey died in Greek waters, despite the fact that Greece, like Italy, is an EU member state, and people were drowning in its waters.

It is hard to be certain why this is – perhaps there is just a number of deaths people such as the EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (who referred to Greece in March 2020 as ‘our shield’ because of its work illegally preventing people from entering the EU) believe to be acceptable, and this incident crossed that ‘threshold’.

Perhaps – and we do not say it is so, but it is horrific to even be able to seriously consider the idea – it is in fact because the EU supports the illegal Greek activities.

Certainly, the former executive director of the EU’s border agency Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, asserted that the agency had been acting according to orders he had received from his bosses – of whom only three exist, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson, EU Vice-President for ‘protecting our European way of life’ (and Nea Dimokratia member) Margaritis Schinas, and von der Leyen herself – when carrying out pushbacks from Greece, and covering-up pushbacks carried out by Greek officers.

In any case, whether pushbacks – the main cause of this latest catastrophe – are the EU’s preferred method or not, the bloc and its employees are also certainly in part responsible for all deaths on the Mediterranean, and not only just because they have done nothing to prevent those pushbacks.

In March 2016, after EU member states – most notably Hungary, Austria and Slovakia – almost destroyed the EU by illegally building border walls preventing people travelling freely throughout the bloc – the EU enacted the EU-Turkey Statement. The document included an ‘agreement’ to pay the Turkish government €6bn by 31 December 2018 (by June 2022, just €4.8bn had been handed over), and pledged to make all travel for Turkish citizens in the Schengen Zone visa-free (this has not been done).

In ‘exchange’ the Turkish government was demanded by the EU (at that point still including the UK) to break international law by preventing people leaving Turkey, effectively demanding that the Turkish Coastguard must become a sea militia breaking the law for the EU. It also set out to break international law by denying anyone who did leave Turkey to enter the EU entry, on the grounds that they had done so.

Early in 2017, the EU developed a similar ‘deal’ with what passes for the Libyan ‘government’ to break the law by preventing people leaving Libya – despite the fact that the latter is either very nearly or very actually a failed state, and people seeking safety are known to be sold as slaves within the country – and paying the competing militias claiming to be ‘the Libyan Coastguard’ to carry out this illegal activity on its behalf.

Lest we forget, the ‘crisis’ which caused this was not that around 1.1m people arrived in the EU in 2015-16: that was an increase at the time of less than 0.2 per cent of the bloc’s population, and the EU is the wealthiest political entity ever to have existed. There never was a ‘crisis’ beyond that caused by individual member states breaking EU and international law.

Nor were these ‘isolated’ incidents. In October 2014, Mare Nostrum, a sea rescue operation which was supposed to have been funded by the EU, and was inspired by the Lampedusa catastrophe of 3 October 2013, was closed by the Italian government because despite having saved more than 150,000 lives, the EU, which promised to contribute, gave zero financial or other assistance to it.

Baroness Anerly, speaking in the UK parliament, claimed the initiative had been ‘a pull factor’ to refugees, a statement about as sensible as claiming that ambulances encourage people to fall out of windows, and hospitals are causing more people to get chronic illnesses.

This failure to commit to rescuing people drowning at sea – and the sickening and laughable excuses for it – were far from the only ways in which the EU has helped set up this cavalcade of continuous catastrophe.

The bloc has consistently broken international law by pushing people who arrive in one of its states to those they first arrived in – the EU cannot pretend to be ‘one nation’ solely in the case of people arriving to apply for asylum and in no other, and if it is not one nation (as of course it is not) it cannot legally justify preventing people reaching the destination of their choice within it.

But of far greater relevance to this most recent catastrophe is that the EU – its individual member states but at best with zero resistance from the bloc itself – has worked extraordinarily-hard to close all ‘regular’ routes by which people could enter to apply for asylum.

The whole point of international refugee law is that it recognises that people who are caught in wars, in other cycles of violence or of persecution, do not have the time, and in most cases would not be able, to apply for and attain visas. They have to flee, and that means moving quickly, regardless of paperwork.

But the EU has made it impossible for people to travel by regular means. The bloc has worked extremely hard to close down all usual routes by which people might travel.

One indication of this is that people, including those on this boat, spend thousands of Euros or Dollars to travel in dangerous craft on dangerous routes, when for the same money or even less they could travel from Afghanistan or Iran in luxury, if only they were allowed to.

And it has also worked very hard to close down ‘irregular’ routes. The problem with the latter is that what this has led to is people taking ‘less usual’ and in every case less safe routes to try to reach safety.

What this means is that the EU and its member states have made agreements under which countries from which people travel are now being demanded to break the law by preventing them from leaving, and making it almost impossible for them to travel by either regular means or even less safe but the safest of the irregular means.

Those who do arrive are increasingly likely to be beaten, stripped of their possessions (and clothing) and pushed back.

And the result of this is death.

The EU and its member states are, by making it impossible to travel by normal means, not preventing travel, but pushing those who need to escape into the arms of people who will put them in unsafe transport, on unsafe routes and leave them to the strong likelihood that they will die.

The EU’s leading politicians will then talk about ‘traffickers’ and how they are ‘breaking the law’ and pretend that these people, and there people alone are the cause of the problem and to blame for deaths at sea.

In the immediate aftermath of yesterday’s disaster, a Turkish national was arrested on suspicion of being a ‘trafficker’.

It’s a claim we must take issue with. If this person had in fact sold places on the boat, they should of course be questioned and held to account for their actions, up to and including causing the situation in which these men, women and children died.

But people trafficking usually involves either fooling people into travelling or forcing people to travel against their will, and doing so with some aim at the other end, often selling people into forced labour or forcing them into indentured servitude.

There seems no good reason to believe these people were forced to travel, or that they were to be sold or pushed into forced labour on arrival in the EU.

Other people claim these people are ‘smugglers’ but this, too, tends to indicate a specific circumstance or circumstances – the movement of people or goods unnoticed. And if the people aboard the boat wished to apply for asylum, this simply does not apply. By definition, they were travelling with the express intention of being noticed and being part of the legal system in the country in which they arrived.

In fact, however bad they may be, and however unacceptable either their motives or their methods, the people putting others on boats are currently the only ones not just allowing people to exercise their legal right to travel and apply for safe places in which to live, learn and work, but also far better than the EU and associated governments which are actively breaking the law to prevent it.

That is, whatever we call these people, and whatever we think of them, it is insane to blame them alone for the deaths of thousands of people at sea. By all means, we should hold them responsible for their part in this situation, but we cannot continue to allow politicians who are breaking the law to put lives at risk to escape blame for these deaths.

‘including (women and) children’

This is just a brief comment, and not meant too critically. But in many of the newspaper and broadcast media reports on Sunday’s disaster – almost all of them sympathetic – the phrase ‘including (women and) children’ has been used when describing those who have died.

It’s understandable, in a way. Children are usually helpless and there is a sympathy for the experience of women all over the world. And people’s emotions are perhaps more easily grabbed by the death of a three-year-old boy than of a 35-year-old man. The phrase is designed to engage, and to draw people in.

Despite these good intentions, however, we must (we are not alone, and it is not the first time we have noted it) point out that being male and having reached the 18 does not make one invulnerable to drowning, or mean that you deserved it.

The death of every single one of these men, women and children was avoidable, horrific, and the unacceptable result of years and years of bad and illegal policy.

We should not forget or undermine the deaths of the men who died yesterday, any more than we should the women or children, and on all of their behalf we must demand justice and an end to this despicable activity by the EU, its members, and its nearby allies and associates.

The response and the (simple) solution

A number of politicians and other public figures, from the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, to the Pope, Francis, expressed their sorrow and distress at the catastrophe.

But we will look at the responses of two politicians who arguably could do something to stop any repetition of it.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni had a response issued on her behalf which said:

The Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni expresses her deep sorrow for the many human lives cut short by human traffickers.

The government is committed to preventing (migrant) departures, and with them the unfolding of these tragedies, and will continue to do so, first of all by demanding maximum collaboration from (migrants') countries of departure and of origin.

Now, before we go any further, we should note that Giorgia Meloni is a fascist, leading a fascist government in which her party is in coalition with another openly fascist party and a party headed by Silvio Berlusconi who is a far-Right opportunist which, for the first time in his political career, makes him not the most Right-wing member of a government in which he has held office.

But she is Italy’s Prime Minister and she could have an impact on what happens next.

Unfortunately, since coming to power she has restarted her coalition party Northern League’s practice of refusing to allow ships carrying people rescued from shipwrecks to dock at Italian ports, thus deliberately increasing those people’s risk of death, and attempting to extend the deal with Libya, and start one with Tunisia, to force those states to break the law by preventing people from leaving, thus forcing people into dangerous transport on dangerous routes, making their deaths even more likely.

But to deal with her comments.

As we have noted, the people who put these men, women and children onto this boat were almost certainly not traffickers. Meloni certainly knows this, making her use of the term deeply suspicious.

She must also be aware that to claim ‘traffickers’ ‘cut short’ the lives of these people is to tell only a sliver of the story, and that she, as well as a number of other politicians in her government and across the EU, must also bear a great deal of the blame.

This makes her opening line, in a statement supposed to be in sympathy for people who have been killed at sea, nothing more than a transparent attempt to escape responsibility for something she certainly played a part in causing.

To claim, as she then does, that the way to ‘prevent… these tragedies’ is to prevent all people from escaping war, terror, persecution and death is not only to campaign for illegal and inhuman activity, and to effectively sentence people hoping to escape such horrors to death, but also effectively to say we should prevent people being burgled by stripping them of all their possessions and putting them in jail. It might prevent burglaries, but it’s hardly an appropriate way of doing so.

And in calling for ‘maximum collaboration’ from ‘countries of departure and origin’ she is demanding a policy which has already – in Libya and Türkiye – failed and effectively proven itself to be absolutely unworkable, which will mean Italy and the wider EU demand even more countries to break the law on its behalf, and which will, of course, hand despicable and violent maniacs in power in other parts of the world to persecute, torture and massacre their populations in the knowledge that the EU will offer no resistance against them.

It is, in summary, a completely despicable response, an attempt to shift blame from herself, and continuing into a proposal that is illegal, and would not deliver anything any reasonable person would want, even if it had not already proven itself to be completely unworkable.

So much for Italy’s thrusting, vibrant, practical, solutions-focused, fascist government’s ‘response’.

Another high-profile political figure to have commented – as she should – was Ursula von der Leyen.

As President of the EU Commission, she really does have the power to make a difference.

She could, for example, advise the EU Parliament to abandon the EU-Turkey Statement and the EU-Libya agreements, which do so much to prevent people from travelling by regular routes, and push them into far more dangerous situations. She could order Frontex to stop assisting EU member states in pushbacks, and she could demand those states allow people to enter so they can apply for asylum.

She made no such pledges.

Instead, she said:

I am deeply saddened by the terrible shipwreck off the coast of Calabria. The resulting loss of life of innocent migrants is a tragedy. All together, we must redouble our efforts on the Pact on Migration & Asylum and on the Action Plan on the Central Mediterranean.

This is in some ways better than the response of the fascist Prime Minister of Italy, though this is a pretty low bar.

She does at least manage to express sadness at the death of innocent people (though she does call them ‘migrants’, which is a shame).

And while now is not the time to list the manifest problems in the proposed Pact on Migration and Asylum (it will in some ways make it even harder for people to reach the EU and apply for asylum when they do, as well as making their experience at the EU’s borders more protracted and difficult) we should perhaps politely remind Ms von der Leyen that this journey was not a ‘central Mediterranean’ one, and that the ‘Action Plan’ she cites is in fact quite similar to the unworkable and atrociously inhuman and illegal plan Meloni sketched in her statement.

But if, as she implies, what she wants is to end the cycle of death and catastrophe in the Mediterranean, there is a really simple way to do so, which we will spell out in three words:

Obey. The. Law.

Let people travel, let them reach the EU, and let them enter and apply for asylum.

At that point, the state in question can decide whether to allow them to remain. That's the law. Just obey it.

Because let us reiterate. The EU and its member states are breaking the law, and the result is not to stop people travelling – we warned when the EU-Turkey Statement was signed it could never do that, and it has not – but to push them into situations in which they die.

Not because they break the law. Because you – the EU, its member states and neighbouring governments – do.

Stop breaking the law. Make sure there is safe transport, on safe routes. Boats, aircraft, coaches where appropriate.

You don’t have to provide it, though you could and you should. But by making sure it exists and is accessible not only will you stop people dying, you will also keep them out of the hands, and their money out of the pockets, of those you call ‘traffickers’.

It’s that simple. Really. There is no reason at all to pretend it is not.

We ask you, please, to just obey the law.


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