Workers Vanguard No. 1034
15 November 2013
Fortress Europe Means Racist Murder
Mass Drowning of Refugees in Mediterranean
The following article was written by our comrades of the Lega Trotskista d’Italia, section of the International Communist League.
On October 3, a boat carrying over 500 refugees, mainly from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, caught fire and capsized half a mile from the Italian island of Lampedusa. All told, 366 bodies were eventually recovered and more are still missing. Only 155 people survived. Those who were in the hold, overwhelmingly women and children, could not even try to escape. The body of a young mother was found attached to her newborn baby by the umbilical cord. This was the deadliest tragedy in the Mediterranean Sea since the end of World War II, with a toll exceeding the December 1996 drowning of at least 283 men, women and children, most of them from Pakistan, in the waters off Portopalo, Sicily.
The mass drowning off Lampedusa brought forth a combination of crocodile tears and racist cynicism from Italian capitalist politicians. Democratic Party (PD) prime minister Enrico Letta and Minister of Interior Angelino Alfano of Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing People of Freedom party, joined by European Union (EU) president José Manuel Barroso, went to Lampedusa to kneel before the coffins of the victims. In a staged farce, everybody from the government to the Catholic church to the Left Ecology Freedom parliamentary opposition got together to decry the disaster and swear, in the words of Letta, “Never again another Lampedusa.”
But just eight days later on October 11, a second boat carrying at least 480 Syrian refugees (and reportedly 100 sub-Saharan immigrants locked in the hold) sank 60 miles south of Lampedusa, killing 268 people. The boat had been damaged by gunfire from a Libyan patrol boat, and individuals on board had been desperately phoning Italian authorities for help. These requests were turned down one after another. Told to contact the Maltese navy instead, they were left to die. A helicopter from Malta did not arrive until six hours after the first S.O.S., when the ship had already capsized.
Those who died in Lampedusa were murdered, and the blame lies with the barrage of vicious anti-immigrant laws that have been imposed by Italian governments, whether left-of-center or right-of-center, and the EU. Meanwhile, the survivors are being held in the Center for Identification and Expulsion in Lampedusa, subject to criminal prosecution for “illegal” immigration. Over the last two decades, the southern rim of Europe has experienced a proliferation of racist laws, barbed-wire fences and detention camps, as well as armed forces deployed to guard the borders of “Fortress Europe.” The number of immigrant detention camps along the southern and eastern borders of the EU went from 324 in 1999 to 473 in 2011, with 13 in Italy. These totals do not include the many unofficial detention centers, from ship cabins to police stations.
The bourgeois press and politicians initially blamed local fishermen for not rescuing the victims of the shipwreck, with some survivors stating that three fishing vessels had turned away from their burning boat. Later, some of the rescuers blamed the local naval authority, the Capitaneria di Porto. Vito Fiorino, who was sleeping on his boat the night of the accident and was the first to hear the desperate cries of the victims, told Corriere della Sera (5 October):
“While we were trying with all of our forces to pull on board as many people as we could, the people on the vessel from the Capitaneria were taking pictures and videos.... We were pulling refugees on board in groups of four. When our ship became too crowded and we risked sinking, we asked the Capitaneria to take them on board of their ship so we could go on with the rescue. Instead they told us they could not accept them because of protocol. It is incredible.”
International maritime law compels ships, including military vessels, to respond to emergency calls from nearby ships and to rescue people if possible. In Italy, however, they need to first get authorization from maritime authorities to avoid being prosecuted under the provisions of a 2002 law pushed by Umberto Bossi and Gianfranco Fini, ultra-right ministers in the Berlusconi government. That law made “illegal” immigration a criminal offense.
In the past, merchant ships were ordered to transport refugees they had rescued to Malta or Libya, countries that are notorious for their mistreatment of immigrants in detention camps. This discouraged merchant vessels from responding to emergency calls. Fishing ships that had rescued immigrants have been seized by naval authorities who investigated the crews, leading to the loss of weeks of work during fishing season. Some crews were even prosecuted and jailed. In 2004, three workers for the refugee charity ship Cap Anamur were put on trial for rescuing 37 immigrants and taking them to an Italian harbor. In August 2007, seven Tunisian fishermen who had rescued 44 people from a sinking boat off Lampedusa were detained for 32 days. In September 2011, the Italian government declared Lampedusa harbor to be unsafe as a destination for refugees rescued at sea, compelling rescue operations to be moved to the Sicilian coast more than 100 miles further to the north.
Now the government and the EU are seizing on the deaths in Lampedusa to ramp up the racist policing of the Mediterranean even more. On October 14, the government announced the launch of operation “Mare Nostrum” (the Latin words used in the early 20th century by nationalist revanchists and fascists to describe their dream of an Italian empire around the Mediterranean). The plan aims at tripling Italian military forces in the central Mediterranean through the deployment of military vessels, amphibious ships, drones and helicopters with infrared and optical instruments.
Bourgeois politicians at candlelight vigils in Rome and Brussels demanded that Italy not be left alone to deal with African immigrants. Sure enough, the EU answered their prayers by releasing money to reinforce the Frontex operation, a pan-European surveillance system whose objective is to reduce the number of immigrants entering Europe and to prevent “cross-border crime.” Established in 2004, Frontex also includes African forces patrolling the territorial waters of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Mauritania and Senegal. The further strengthening of Frontex will mean even more deaths at sea, as routes will become even longer and more perilous.
Ever since the countries of Southern Europe began bringing in immigrant workers, the Mediterranean has become an open-air cemetery. No one can ascertain exactly how many immigrants have been swallowed by the sea, but estimates are that nearly 20,000 died in the last 25 years in the attempt to get to Europe after fleeing political, religious and ethnic persecution or simply starvation. A notorious case was that of the Kater i Rades, a ship that sailed from Albania in 1997 in the midst of political turmoil in that country. The ship was rammed and sunk by the Italian military vessel Sibilla, killing 81 people. At the time, Italy was governed by Romano Prodi’s popular-front Olive Tree government, which was supported by the reformist Rifondazione Comunista (RC).
In 2011 alone, more than 1,500 people died at sea in the aftermath of the so-called “Arab spring” and the murderous NATO bombings of Qaddafi’s Libya. In March of that year, a ship with 72 refugees from Libya was abandoned. It drifted at sea for more than two weeks, even though its position had been communicated to European authorities and NATO vessels and warplanes were monitoring every inch of the Gulf of Sirte and the Sicily Channel. Sixty-three people died of hunger and thirst, leaving only nine survivors to describe their ordeal.
Attempts by people to emigrate from North and sub-Saharan Africa continue to take a deadly toll. In late October, 87 immigrants were found dead of thirst in the northern Niger desert after their vehicles broke down. Four months before, a dozen Sudanese immigrants were fatally shot by Libyan border guards.
Colonialism and Racism: Bloodlines of “Humanitarian” Imperialism
The refugees who died in Lampedusa mostly came from the Horn of Africa and had set sail from the Libyan coast, an itinerary that crosses most of the countries that were the historical victims of Italian imperialism. Italy had partially succeeded in establishing colonies in East Africa by the end of the 19th century and colonized Libya in 1911 following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Under Mussolini’s fascist regime, the Italian bourgeoisie was able to “reconquer” its empire, leaving the dead bodies of 500,000 Libyans and Ethiopians in its wake. The history of Italian colonialism in those countries is filled with atrocities: the bombing of villages; the massive use of chemical weapons like mustard gas, phosgene and arsine; the establishment of concentration camps and the starving to death of almost a half of the population of eastern Libya.
Today, capitalist politicians like to cover their aims with the rhetoric of “human rights.” But the only right they recognize is their own right to exploit and plunder markets and the vast resources in oil, gas and other raw materials in African countries. Before the imperialist attack against Libya in 2011, Italy imported 25 percent of its oil and 13 percent of its gas from that country, in which the biggest Italian companies had strong interests.
The Left Ecology Freedom party’s Laura Boldrini, speaker of the Italian Chamber of Deputies and former spokeswoman for the United Nations Human Rights Commission, has been elevated to the status of the “angel of the refugees.” While she has asked that illegal immigration not be treated as a crime, Boldrini has also praised the Italian navy, coast guard and other state agencies for their supposedly “untold efforts to save human lives.” Further, she has called on EU states to strengthen both their “monitoring and rescuing at sea” and efforts to promote “democratization” in the immigrants’ countries of origin. Such proposals, packaged with the usual “humanitarian” verbiage, mean a reinforcing of the same imperialist institutions that for decades have pursued military intervention, racist repression and attempts to turn North African states into EU border guards.
In 2006, Human Rights Watch denounced the Qaddafi government for carrying out arbitrary detentions and torture in prison camps for foreigners, three of which were funded by Italy. The Italian reformist left strongly criticized the Berlusconi government for bilateral agreements with Qaddafi’s regime over policing immigration. They forgot to add that Berlusconi was enacting previous agreements that had been made in December 2007 by the second Prodi government, which included RC secretary Paolo Ferrero as a minister.
The capitalist government of Luis Zapatero’s Socialist Party in Spain was no better. Overnight in late April 2008 outside Al Hoceima, Morocco, a Spanish naval vessel sank a boat carrying sub-Saharan immigrants, killing at least 29. The Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco are surrounded by a double fence of barbed wire nearly 20 feet high, partially paid for by the EU. During the summer of 2005, attempts by hundreds of men to cross the fences were repelled by gunfire from the Guardia Civil and their Moroccan auxiliaries that killed an estimated 13 and wounded 100 people.
Italian prime minister Letta now denounces the new Libyan authorities for not properly policing their shores. To be sure, this is not because the Libyan regime solidarizes with the plight of black African immigrants. The pro-imperialist puppet government that emerged from the NATO bombing campaign promised to maintain the existing agreements with Italy and the EU over the repression of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa and their detention in desert prison camps.
Immediately after taking power, Libyan prime minister Mahmoud Jibril declared that he “welcomed and encouraged” his country’s joint coastal patrols with Italy and blamed “illegal immigrants” for “spreading diseases and provoking clashes with Libyan citizens.” In August 2011, “revolutionary” militias from Misurata carried out ethnic cleansing in the town of Tawergha, whose 30,000 villagers, mostly Libyan citizens descended from black slaves, were chased from their homes for allegedly supporting Qaddafi’s government. Many fled toward the desert in central Libya. Thousands ended up in refugee camps near Tripoli, where they were constantly harassed by the militias. Such were the reactionary militias that the fake-Trotskyist Partito di Alternativa Comunista, Italian affiliate of the Morenoite International Workers League-Fourth International, prettified as “proletarian armed committees” and called upon to directly take power.
Must Oppose Racist
The Letta government ghoulishly promised to grant Italian citizenship as well as state funerals to those who died in the Lampedusa shipwreck. A funeral ceremony was held in Agrigento, Sicily, in the presence of Italian and Eritrean authorities but without the coffins of the victims and in the absence of the survivors, who were prohibited from attending. Families of the refugees protested the exclusion and the threatening presence of officials from Eritrea, from where many of the refugees had escaped, while local anti-racist activists chased Interior Minister Angelino Alfano with shouts of “Bossi-Fini, murderer’s law.”
Italy has been run for two years by “national unity” governments supported by the capitalist Democratic Party and People of Freedom party, with the leaders of the main trade-union confederations playing along by refusing to wage any class struggle. Financial institutions and the EU masters have charged these governments with slashing welfare and cutting wages and pensions in order to repay loans to Italian and foreign banks. Austerity measures have severely hit the working class, especially the millions of immigrant workers. The racist oppression of immigrants in Italy is symbolized by the Bossi-Fini law. Among its provisions, the law links the issuance of residence permits to work contracts, making immigrant workers vulnerable to all sorts of blackmail by the bosses.
In the wake of the Lampedusa tragedy, sections of the PD and its allies in Left Ecology Freedom have demanded the abolition of the most offending sections of the Bossi-Fini law or even its entire abrogation. PD integration minister Cecile Kyenge, the first non-white minister in the history of the country, has suggested a law to make it easier for immigrants’ children born in Italy to gain citizenship. In response, and for the simple fact that she is a black woman, Kyenge has been subjected to a wave of vile racist attacks by far-right Northern League scum and by outright fascist groups like Forza Nuova that have thrown bananas at her and hung nooses in a town where she was due to speak.
Up to now, Italian citizenship has been ruled by “ius sanguinis” (blood right), which grants automatic citizenship to anyone in the U.S., Argentina or elsewhere with a male ancestor who died as an Italian citizen after 1861, when the former kingdom was established. Beneficiaries also include anyone descended from Italians who lived in the territories of the former Yugoslavia that were occupied by fascist Italy. Changes proposed to the immigration laws are only cosmetic. They would maintain the system of detention centers while reducing maximum stays to less than the current 18 months and would make illegal immigration an administrative offense in order to avoid overfilling prisons and courts and to free police for patrolling the streets.
Two deputies from the populist Five Star movement introduced an amendment to abolish the crime of illegal immigration, which carried in a commission of the upper chamber of parliament. However, Five Star gurus Beppe Grillo and Gianroberto Casalegno issued a vile statement printed on Grillo’s blog ranting that “the content of this amendment is an invitation to emigrants from Africa and from the Middle East to set sail for Italy.... Lampedusa is close to collapsing and Italy’s not doing too well. How many clandestines can we welcome here if one in eight people here in Italy does not have the money to eat?”
The Lega Trotskista d’Italia, section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist), calls for the abolition of the Bossi-Fini law and for full citizenship rights for everyone who lives on Italian soil, with no restrictions whatsoever. We demand: Close the detention centers! No deportations! Calling simply for the abolition of the Bossi-Fini law has nothing to do with citizenship rights. If it were repealed, there would be a de facto reversion to the previous legislation, the Turco-Napolitano law. Enacted in 1998 under the Prodi government with votes from the RC, it provided the basic framework for all subsequent immigration laws: deportations, detention camps, administrative detention and deprivation of citizenship rights. The main difference has always been that popular-front governments couched their racist laws in “humanitarian” garb, while the right revels in the most open and vicious racism.
Both bourgeois forces have managed immigration in the interests of Italian capitalism, which needs a cheaper workforce that is easy to blackmail and dispose of in the event of economic downturns. The second Prodi coalition government, which included RC, never even talked about changing the Bossi-Fini law. “Left” bourgeois governments have certainly not shied away from using immigrants as scapegoats for growing misery. In 2007, the Prodi government launched a vicious campaign against Roma (gypsy) and Romanian immigrants in order to send the message that while they were EU citizens, they were not equals under the law or in practice.
Labor should take a stand in defense of immigrants and fight to unionize immigrant workers, who are savagely exploited by the caporali (overseers) in the fields of Southern Italy and by contractors in the North. This requires a class-struggle leadership of the trade unions to replace the current pro-capitalist union bureaucrats mostly linked to the PD and its reformist tails, whose aim is to be in the saddle of capitalist government. After a decade of Left Ecology Freedom rule in Puglia, the region remains a center of brutal exploitation of immigrant workers in agribusiness and “alternative energy” projects. To end discrimination and victimization of immigrants requires the proletarian overthrow of the capitalist system of exploitation, to which racist oppression is an integral component.