It is perhaps no coincidence that this year, the world’s most exclusive club of leaders—the Group of 7—met in Taormina, Italy. Few kilometers from there and the tourist destination Isola Bella, on the rocks of Lampedusa and on the southern and western coasts of Sicily, hundreds of thousands of migrants land after arduous journeys on the Mediterranean.
In the last year alone, a record-breaking number of 181,000 migrants landed in the shores of Italy. Since 2015, more than 1.5 million reached the entire continent of Europe. There are two main routes from which they come: Libya-Italy and Turkey-Greece; the difficulties that these Euro-Mediterranean countries are continuing to face are enormous, including human risks, economic costs, and security problems.
For a long period—during the 1990’s and 2000’s—Italy had received for its efforts in the Mediterranean Sea contrived moral support from the EU and other world leaders. But funds were evidently lacking. In the last years, some things have changed. Italy is a country that often serves as just the first port with the final destination for migrants being countries like Germany, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the United Kingdom. But the EU has not done enough, in terms of regulation and funds, considering the enormous costs and humanitarian problems that both Italy and Greece had to incur.
The Italian Navy and the Coast Guard are endlessly under risk of exposure; the first line reception centers—CARA, CDA, CPSA and CAS—are constantly full; the costs to build and manage new structures are rising exponentially along with the rise of the number of the migrants. Same goes for the caring and sustenance of migrants, for their repatriation or to help African authorities in stopping smuggling. And there is no way yet to really calculate the national security costs involved in such an overwhelming migration. Especially for a slow bureaucratic machine like the Italian one.
But recently the political approach to migration has changed. For the worse. We have started to see two predominant debates that belonged only to extremists parties now becoming mainstream. On one side, the populist xenophobic parties rallying “don’t let them in” and build walls (and fences) and more walls (and fences) and even more walls (and fences) and of course, more walls. On the other side, moderate parties rally to stop rescuing and saving lives because it incentivizes migrants to take risk and travel; hiding the racism and insouciance of the “let them drown” motto under the fake path of deductive reasoning.
Both approaches have found in Trump and in Trumpism a perfect ally, if not a mentor.
In fact, all are pushing for a complete indifference of the real issues: social, economic, humanitarian, military. If they can, they change rights into “benefits” and remove them altogether.
Today, world leaders are worried and focused on the identification process. They think that security-wise this is the main issue to focus on. But passports, identity cards, and any other documents can be falsified. Our first responsibility is to save the lives of human beings. Before labeling them a security problem, the migrants are human beings.
Fuocammare (Fire at Sea) a wonderful documentary—Golden Bear winner and Academy nominated—by Italian director Gianfranco Rosi, tried to depict this unprecedented migrant experience in a vivid and dizzying manner—an unbreakable dualism for those similar near-death experiences.
Migrants are willing to take unspeakable risks in order to get a new life. They are not just numbers, but their numbers can tell quite a story. In 2014, almost 300,000 migrants reached Europe. The next year, the migrant flow tripled, exceeding more than a million. In 2016, the creation of Eastern European barriers, there was a reduction on migration to Europe. This did not deter migration; smugglers created a new sea route to Italy, which has brought to the country’s shores 181,000 migrants. At the end of the year, five thousand people perished in the Mediterranean Sea.
The forces allocated by the Italian Navy and the Italian Coast Guard have been significant. It is thanks to them the number of casualties is not higher. Take, for example, what happened the night of the last 23rd of February, when the Italian servicemen saved in just one night 1100 lives, on nine different boats, spread across a pitch-black sea. A difficult night, but not so rare, and certainly not the worst so far.
The question on everyone’s mind: what pushes migrants to enter this deadly journey?
The options: stay in their own country, watch it fall apart and die in the war or from diseases; risk to be bombed or assaulted; join mercenaries or war-lords; be forced to enlist jihadist or be killed by them.
It’s not a coincidence that among migrants, 91% of minors are unaccompanied. Families save all their money and put their sons in the hands of smugglers and of fate. In 2016, we have seen the number of unaccompanied minors migrating double. In the first months of 2017, the number increased by 35%. Given what we know about where the migrants are coming from, we know that their choice to brave the Mediterranean waters a rational choice. It’s risky but not senseless. It’s a tormented commitment.
In Italy, polls say that Eurosceptic and introverted M5S party will take the lead, with unpredictable results. The UK after Brexit—while planning the cut-off day—is facing an alarming rise in racism and hate crimes. In France, the extreme right Presidential Candidate Marine Le Pen was willing to bring the country out of the EU and strongly criticized NATO.
In one way or another, it seems we are getting closer to the end the European Union—sixty years after the Treaty of Rome—and the major international agreements and treaties may not survive such a difficult season. All of this, undoubtedly will weaken global stability.
Instead, this is the moment that we should unite for dialogue. Italy recently reached an important agreement with Libyan authorities to curb the flow of migrants to Italy and Europe. The plan considers funding, training, and providing equipment to help the UN-backed Libyan government. But Italy has been alone in this process and without international support it will be impossible for the Libyan authorities to combat smugglers that run a business worth billions of dollars yearly. Last year, it was estimated that since 2000, smugglers have made more than $10 billion.
The G7 summit is an important forum for the world’s wealthiest nations to take a stand with the migrants. After all, the migrants will be right there with them in Taormina. This year four out of the seven leaders attend the G7 for the first time. New conversations can be started with a new generation of leaders who want to make a difference for all humanity.
About the author: An Italian national, Gabriele E. Mastroianni is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne, Australia after spending years in the Middle East. He covers a broad range of topics, focusing on the EU-MENA, migration, and security.