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After Lampedusa Shipwreck, Italy Considers Decriminalizing Illegal Immigration

“Migrant shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa” – comic strip by the cartoonist and activist Carlos Latuff on the Opera Mundi website

[All links lead to Italian-language webpages unless otherwise noted.]

Five days after more than 350 African migrants lost their lives when the boat they were travelling on bound for Europe sank off the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, a commission in the Italian Senate voted in favor of repealing the crime of illegal immigration.

The commission on the evening of 9 October 2013 recommended that the Bossi-Fini Law, which defined the crime of illegal immigration and prohibited bystanders from coming to the aid of illegal migrants, be modified to decriminalize undocumented migration. Because of that law, the 150 or so survivors of the shipwreck face criminal investigation in Italy.

On his blog, Fabio Sabatini, a University of Rome's professor, had previously attacked the Bossi-Fini Law, calling it:

“[..] una legge che ammette i respingimenti al paese di origine in base ad accordi con stati in cui la detenzione e la tortura per motivi politici sono all’ordine del giorno. Che attribuisce pregiudizialmente al migrante irregolare la responsabilità di un reato, e che prevede quindi il reato di favoreggiamento per chiunque porti in Italia dei migranti senza visto. Col risultato poco lusinghiero di costringere gli immigrati a buttarsi in mare nel tentativo disperato di raggiungere la riva a nuoto, o di creare le condizioni per l’incriminazione di quei pescherecci che salvano i naufraghi da morte certa.”

“[..] a law that allows people to be sent back to their country of origin on the basis of agreements with states where detention and torture for political reasons are an everyday occurrence. The responsibility for the crime is prejudicially attached to the illegal migrant and, subsequently, there is also the offence of aiding and abetting for anyone who brings a migrant into Italy without a visa. The unflattering result is that immigrants are forced to jump into the sea in a desperate attempt to reach the shore by swimming, or bring an indictment upon those fishing vessels that save the survivors from certain death.”

The commission's vote in favor of changing the law came at the end of the day when President of the European Commission Manuel Barroso and Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta visited Lampedusa, where they were strongly challenged by the residents, who greeted them with cries of “shame” and “murderers”. The Twitter user @Iddio replied:

Letta: “Unprecendented tragedy in Lampedusa”. Enrì, usually a lot more die, but more spread out and without press coverage.

- Dio (@ lddio) October 9, 2013

Many people believe that the complete abolition of the Bossi-Fini law, which has criminalised illegal immigration since 2009, would be the first step towards creating a legal system that better respects civil rights: La Repubblica's campaign for its abolition has collected more than 100,000 signatures in a short amount of time.

On Twitter, people expressed their views on the possible repeal under the hashtag #bossifini:

Those who say “What's the #Bossi-Fini got to do with it?” remind me of the farmers near Mauthausen. What's that? Well, a factory

- Alessandro Robecchi (@ AlRobecchi) October 11, 2013

Thanks to the sailors who honour our flag by saving the lives of “criminals”, according to Bossi, Borghezio and Grillo. Down with the Bossi-Fini.

— Vittorio Zucconi (@vittoriozucconi) October 11, 2013

Those who died at sea have been granted the honour of state funeral, but only the abolition of the law against illegal immigration has prevented the survivors from being indicted. Some of the survivors of the 4 October wreck said that they had not received aid from the three fishing boats, but the Deputy Prime Minister Angelino Alfano replied that the ships hadn't seen them. According to the blogdieles, this is not true:

[..] Angelino Alfano non può non sapere che la Bossi-Fini PROIBISCE DI PRESTARE SOCCORSO AI BARCONI. La pena è fino a 15 anni di galera (reato di favoreggiamento dei clandestini o dello sbarco di clandestini) !! Si, avete letto bene. Quella legge proibisce di prestare soccorso ai migranti che sono in difficoltà in mare. Le vite umane? NON VALGONO UN CAZZO. Quello che valeva, per il legislatore, era tenere in piedi il governo facendo un regalone agli alleati leghisti!

[..] Angelino Alfano must not know that the Bossi-Fini law PROHIBITS PROVIDING AID TO BARGES. The penalty is up to 15 years in prison (the crime of aiding and abetting illegal immigrants or bringing illegal immigrants ashore)!! Yes, you read that right. That law forbids helping migrants who are in distress at sea. Human lives? THEY ARE NOT WORTH ANYTHING. What was important for the person who wrote the law was keeping the government together by giving the Northern League allies a present!

The terrible tragedy of migrant shipwrecks didn't end on 4 October: On the evening of 11 October, another shipwreck resulted in 50 deaths. Last summer, dead bodies were lined up on the beach between the umbrellas of the tourists, just a few metres from the sea.

A total of 250,000 people have been swallowed by the Mediterranean sea in the last 20 years, mainly migrants on their way to Lampedusa, according to Jose Angel Oropeza, Director of the Office for the Coordination of the Mediterranean of the IOM (International Organisation for Migration), quoted by the Sicilian online publication SUD. He highlighted the necessity to intervene in transit countries such as Libya, to avoid risking their lives at sea being the only way to reach Europe.

Lampedusa, an Italian outpost in the Mediterranean Sea, is an island of about eight square miles home to about 6,000 inhabitants with an economy based on fishing and tourism. In recent years, it has often faced emergency landings – and deaths – of migrants travelling by sea. The citizens of Lampedusa have shown great hospitality while paying a high price with the collapse of the tourist industry. Inevitably, the residents are exhausted: in this video some citizens report situations of difficult coexistence, thefts and assaults.

Fabrizio Gatti, a journalist who works for Espresso, a weekly political magazine who almost drowned himself in 2005 and was rescued by an inhabitant of the island, has launched a campaign to nominate Lampedusa for the Nobel Peace Prize. He has gathered more than 50,000 signatures so far.

There is nonetheless a bitter reflection on the topic from the blog “diecieventicinque”:

 La proposta di assegnare un premio del genere a Lampedusa è carica degli stessi sentimenti positivi e genuini che avevano mosso i promotori del premio per l’Africa, ed è già a rischio di subire la stessa strumentalizzazione politica. […] Condannare moralmente chi opera male sarebbe a quel punto altrettanto corretto.

The proposal to award a prize of this kind to Lampedusa is full of the same positive and genuine feelings that moved the sponsors of the prize awarded to Africa, and is already at risk of suffering the same political manipulation. […] To morally condemn those who preform evil acts at this point would be equally justified.

The European Council, in light of a proposal by the Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom following the tragedy, decided to reinforce the Frontex [en] programme, which supports the fight against “criminal and illegal immigration”. However, an article on the “Sbilanciamoci” website criticises the agency's activities:

In sintesi: le attività di sorveglianza e controllo delle frontiere esterne svolte da Frontex hanno come priorità quella di impedire l’arrivo dei migranti irregolari in Europa e sembrano lasciare in secondo piano le attività di pronto soccorso in mare. […] Frontex è una vera e propria macchina da guerra contro i migranti ed è scandaloso che il suo rafforzamento venga riproposto oggi a seguito della strage di Lampedusa del 4 ottobre.

In summary: the surveillance and control of external borders carried out by Frontex have the priority of preventing the arrival of illegal migrants in Europe and seem to leave the first aid activities at sea to the side. […] Frontex is a real war machine against migrants and it is scandalous that its reinforcement is re-proposed today as a result of the Lampedusa massacre of 4 October.

Andrea Segre, director of many documentaries on the conditions of migrants in Italy, including “Sangue Verde” (Green Blood) and “Mare chiuso” (Closed Sea), stressed on his blog that policies to combat illegal immigration based on military operations cannot work, and he proposed the following:

Si ma allora? Come si fa?

Si spostano i finanziamenti dal contrasto all'immigrazione illegale alla creazione di canali di emigrazione legale.

Si creano servizi e agenzie che danno informazioni su come e dove emigrare o su come e dove fuggire.

Ma così vengono tutti qui?

Non è vero.

La maggior parte di chi deve scappare da regimi e guerre, cerca rifugio vicino casa per sperare di tornarci quando le guerre finiscono o i regimi cadono.

Yes, but so what? What can we do?

Move funding to combat illegal immigration by creating channels for legal migration.

Create services and agencies that provide information on how and where migrate or how and where to escape.

But then they'll all come here?

That's not true.

Most of those who have run away from regimes and wars seek refuge close to home in the hopes of going back when the war ends or the regime falls.

There is no point hiding the fact that the abolition of the Bossi-Fini law will not prevent the desperate people landing in Lampedusa. For this reason, a humanitarian channel towards Europe is necessary along with a European asylum law, as proposed by the Melting Pot project:

Alle Istituzioni italiane, ai Presidenti delle Camere, ai Ministri della Repubblica, chiediamo di farsi immediatamente carico di questa richiesta.

Alle Istituzioni europee di mettersi immediatamente al lavoro per rendere operativo un canale umanitario verso l’Europa.

Alle Associazioni tutte, alle organizzazioni umanitarie, ai collettivi ed ai comitati, rivolgiamo l’invito di mobilitarsi in queste prossime ore ed in futuro per affermare IL DIRITTO D’ASILO EUROPEO.

We ask that the Italian institutions, the Presidents of the Chambers and the Ministers of the Republic immediately act on this request.

We ask other European institutions to immediately begin work to open a humanitarian channel to Europe.

We ask all the other Associations, humanitarian organisations, collectives and committees to rally in the next few hours and to say yes to THE EUROPEAN RIGHT TO ASYLUM in the future.

2013 has been declared the European year of citizenship. It is reasonable to ask yourself how those on the edge of society can be better included, and try to question a status quo that risks the exclusion of many.

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