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La Pietra Dialogues On the World On-Line
A Call for Unity
Carmen Russo, NYU Florence Student
La Pietra Dialogues
April 15, 2015

During the span of two months in 2013, more than 500 African immigrants died in the Mediterranean Sea. Another 350 coffins at the doorstep of Italy after the tragic Lampedusa wreck in October 2013 sparked the initiative of Mare Nostrum, an Italian rescue operation. Two years later, Mare Nostrum has been terminated but thousands of Africans continue to risk their lives on the journey across the sea.

Claudia Cereceda, a Global Liberal Studies junior at New York University Florence, organized last night’s Our Sea, Our World dialogue to discuss why the European Union needs to support and fund programs like Mare Nostrum. The panel included Flavio Di Giacomo, spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration, Cristopher Hein, founder of the Italian Council for Refugees, and Beat Schuler, Senior Protection Officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. By the numbers, the influx of immigrants to Europe is not an emergency because Europe is not in danger of becoming overpopulated. But Mr. Di Giacomo illustrated his term “humanitarian emergency” when he spoke about the testimonies given to him by immigrants who had survived.

They told him they knew they could die in the middle of the desert or drown in the vast Mediterranean, but they never expected the danger faced in refugee camps in Libya. For many Africans fleeing oppression and war, Libya is the last stop before being packed onto a wooden fishing boat. For others, a refugee camp in Libya is the only feasible safe haven. But even those wanting to stay are often forced to continue on to Europe since migrants in Libya cannot work for full pay and are brutally beaten for protesting or pocket money. The only way out is to pay a smuggler, and “once they pay, another kind of hell begins.” The beatings continue, the women are often raped, and the migrants who are scared to face the unpredictable ocean in an overcrowded boat are forced on and left with scars.

All of these risks continue to be taken because it is the only way out of the war-torn countries of Sudan, Libya, Eritrea, Somalia, and Nigeria. Migration will continue with or without safe programs. As Mr. Schuler pointed out, Mare Nostrum is not the “pull factor” encouraging refugees to come to Europe, but it is the wars, extreme oppression, and conditions of refugee camps. Mr. Schuler also talked about a model for transit stations in Northern African countries that would have the ability to quickly process refugees and transport them to Europe in safety.

Other possible solutions discussed were legal channels from Africa to Europe, making improvements to African refugee camps, and unifying the European Union states behind the cause of protecting the seas. Efforts by the Italian Coast Guard and Italian governmental programs have saved thousands of lives, but Italy is also in an economic crisis and is unable to be the sole provider of ships and money. Mr. Schuler compared European solidarity to a small child in need of nurture and pointed out the lack of action from coastal countries such as France, Spain, and Portugal. A long-term solution, he argued, will need to be global.

Although some progress has been made, it is not enough. In Mr. Hein’s closing remarks, he told the audience that even in the early morning of that day, nine people died during their escape. “Tomorrow and the day after tomorrow we will say the same thing,” he said, “so we have to act now.”


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