We can do better than Italy’s warehousing on Lampedusa

By Pamela Curr

“They did not drown. They died of thirst”, the UN worker on Lampedusa told me. In the busy shipping lanes of the Mediterranean, 75 Eritrean men, women and children died of thirst in an open boat.

Lampedusa
Lampedusa is the small island south of Sicily in the Mediterrean sea and not far from North Africa

The five survivors told this UN worker who cared for them that 10 ships witnessed their plight and sailed away. This is the dark side of dehumanising asylum seekers. The result is that civilised nations can avert their gaze as asylum seekers die. Maybe Australians need to recall our history in this game as our politicians begin the anti-refugee war games again.

In 2008 when Australia had 179 boat arrivals to Christmas Island, Lampedusa, an island off the coast of Sicily but closer to Africa had 31,500. Unlike the current boat arrivals in Australia, not all these people are asylum seekers and many, such as the 7000 Tunisians who came in 2008 to Italy, do not want asylum. They want to land in Italy and then go to France to work so that they can send money home to their families. The Tunisian Government refuses to take back its citizens preferring the dollars they send from abroad.

Lampedusa’s proximity to Africa is akin to Christmas Island being closer to Indonesia than Australia. Lampedusa’s beaches are crowded with tanned Italian holiday makers who never see the asylum seekers, as they are brought on shore after dark and immediately transferred in a bus to the centre. Unlike Christmas Island, the asylum seekers and economic migrants are not kept in the Lampedusa centre but are transferred to Sicily and the Italian mainland for processing within days. This worked until last year when Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi stopped the transfer and numbers built to overflowing, causing widespread concern as people were sleeping on the ground in the rain under sheets of plastic.

Berlusconi has stepped away from this orderly process by externalising Italy’s borders to Libya in the same way that Australia is externalising our border to Indonesia. He has implemented a $5-billion deal with Libya’s leader, Colonel Gaddafi to ensure that these thousands of people no longer make it to Italy. Very few boats now pass through the cordon of the Italian and Libyan navies. The people are taken off the boats and returned to Libya. The human cost is that people are thrown into Libyan detention centres where rape and physical violence is unchecked and many are dumped in the African desert to perish while others die at sea.

Australia is lucky in that our Indonesian neighbour has a more compassionate attitude towards asylum seekers. Although it is questionable just how sustainable is our current policy of asking this developing nation of 238 million people of 300 ethnic groups on 6000 inhabited islands to shoulder the burden of becoming Australia’s extra-territorial boundary.

Australia, as the wealthiest and best resourced nation in the region, has an opportunity to lead the world with a moral response to the challenge of people movements. The Opposition laud their Pacific solution but neglect to remind us that it was only temporary. Ultimately the people incarcerated on Nauru were settled in Australia. The question is will the present Labor Government look to the failed policies of the previous government or show us that they are capable of much more by producing their own creative and moral response to what is a very small problem?

PAMELA CURR
Reprinted from National Times October 14, 2009 – 11:57AM
Pamela Curr is campaign co-ordinator at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne.

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