As we saw last week, Africans are desperately risking, and losing, their lives in the struggle to get into Europe. They come above all from the war-afflicted states of Eritrea, Somalia and Syria. They trek to Libya (itself now increasingly in bloody turmoil, a Spring long gone) or Tunisia, and from there seek a boat to the island of Lampedusa, the southernmost piece of Italian soil, nearer to the north African coast than it is to Sicily.
The emigrants pay up to 1,000 euros to traffickers, who sometimes take their money and disappear, sometimes pack hundreds of them into fishing boats, which might normally carry a dozen men. From there they set off to cover the 80 or so miles to the lovely island, a luxurious resort with some of the best beaches on the planet, and now the fevered hope of some of the world’s poorest.
At the end of last week, a 66-foot ship with upwards of 500 of these people sank less than a mile from Lampedusa. More than 150 were rescued; as many as 350 may have drowned. Italy, mired in recession with burgeoning unemployment for all, and especially for the young, is no more generous to illegal emigrants than the rest of Europe, but the scale caused shock there and throughout the continent. Unlikely, though, that it will it cause a change in attitude.
The Mediterranean immigrants are not just fleeing poverty — as emigrants, including millions from Italy in the past two centuries, have always done. They are fleeing death. The largest proportion of the Mediterranean immigrants come from Eritrea, Somalia and Syria. The plight of those three countries makes clear what their citizens are running from, even if it’s unclear what they’re running towards.
Eritrea achieved its independence from Ethiopia — itself no poster child of human rights — in 1991, at the cost of a succession of draining wars with Ethiopia and other states, and a tightening authoritarianism that has seen many flee from a slave-like forced military service and a fearsome persecution of all unregistered religious worship. Somalia, for years un-governed, now has a fragile government in place. It is still, however, haunted by the al Qaeda-linked al Shabab terrorist group (which carried out the murderous siege of the shopping mall in Kenya last month). Shabab’s control of parts of the country — now loosened — saw a strong version of Sharia Law imposed, with beheadings and repression of women and minorities.