«While Italy complains, Tunisia and Egypt accept hundreds of thousands of Libyan refugees»
A conversation with Laura Boldrini, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR. By Ilaria Romano 22 April 2011

There is always news about landings on the Italian coasts, but what news is there about these sea voyages across the Mediterranean?

We have drafted an analysis of the situation through reports we receive from the relatives and friends of people who have left Libya, but do not seem to have reached the other side of the Mediterranean. There are over 800 missing.
A few days ago we received the disturbing news of a shipwrecked man, who, together with ten others, was taken back to Libya by the currents. This young man contacted Father Moses Zerai (from the Habeshia Agency for Cooperation and Development, who is following the situation involving Eritrean and Somali refugees, Editor’s Note) to tell him what had happened. His boat had been adrift for 15 days with 72 people on board, often crossing other vessels and also spotted by a helicopter from which photographs were taken, but no one rescued them. Sixty-two people, among them women and children, died of hunger and thirst.

What can one do in such situations?

It is alarming, and it is hard to understand how, in a Mediterranean filled with vessels, people can die this way or how a boat can be adrift for two weeks. It is necessary to implement provisions and there should be better coordination. We also need to clarify the issue of responsibility so that the principle of impunity in the Mediterranean does not stand. Some say that if a vessel’s engine is working then it is not considered to be experiencing problems, but a boat filled with people who do not know how to sail her is, by definition, in danger and one should not wait for a disaster to happen since there is always the risk of being unable to intervene.

Do the numbers in these migratory flows indicate an emergency?

In Italy the debate is a weak and static one. For years the issue has been addressed the same way while this phenomenon is instead constantly evolving. An emergency cannot remain an emergency for 12 years.
The debate on immigration is still only based on threats to security and this does not reflect the complexity of the phenomenon. On the contrary, it creates the wrong impression in public opinion. There is a totally negative perception, thanks to the manner in which the subject is addressed by most politicians and much of the press.

How are Tunisia and Egypt addressing immigration and managing their borders?

It is rather surprising that, without understanding what is happening in North Africa, where 500,000 people have fled Libya for bordering countries, especially for Tunisia and Egypt, Italy perceives the arrivals on its coasts as an invasion. These are two countries experiencing their own internal problems, but have left their borders open. Both Tunisia and Egypt have dealt with this flow of over 200,000 people in each country, and we instead believe that it is Italy with its 23,000 arrivals that is bearing the brunt of the flow. It is sufficient to analyse the flow of those who have left Libya to instantly understand that 3,600 people have arrived in Italy from Libya. However, the others are Tunisians coming from a country that in its turn is hosting 220,000 refugees.

What are we doing wrong in Italy and in Europe?

It is obvious that if one only addresses the arrivals, one loses sight of the larger picture, the extent of what is happening right now, and thus one risks missing an opportunity, because it is in Italy and Europe’s best interest that democratic processes be consolidated after these uprisings. This will then lead to further economic development and therefore more stability. Young Tunisians will no longer need to search for work in Europe if there are jobs in their own country. And many things will change if democracy comes to Libya, including the fact that refugees will not be obliged to travel further to look for a safe place.

In 2009, following the first rejections of immigrants at sea, you wrote the book entitled “Tutti indietro” [Everyone goes back]. What effects has this policy had?

In 2009 the Italian government adopted a policy involving the rejection of all immigrants while they were still at sea and this marked a point of no return, since one never expected anything similar would happen in Italy, precisely because of the country’s migratory tradition. Even the “Lampedusa model” we had contributed to implementing, was abolished. It managed mixed migratory flows with border controls, while respecting the right to asylum. Rejections at sea ignores all forms of identification and an entire series of provisions established by the law, and that it why this system cannot be used.

Translation by Francesca Simmons