Lampedusa: The tragedy and the great deception

The latest tragedy off the coast of Lampedusa, both because of the scale of what happened and the way the disaster unfolded, has caused a general sense of outrage and indignation that goes well beyond the hypocritical words and shameful crocodile tears of Italy’s – and Europe’s – ruling classes and politicians, the real accomplices and instigators of such misfortunes.

It has now been announced by the Italian government that a state funeral is to be held for for the hundreds of migrants who died in the tragedy. While they were alive they were all potential “criminals” for the Italian state and once they would have set foot on Italian soil, most likely they would have ended up in the many detention centres successive Italian governments have set up to deal with the “problem”. Now that they are dead the hypocrisy of Italy’s rulers, who seem to see no contradiction in this latest proposal, they are very “welcome”.

Prime Minister Letta made the dramatic gesture of kneeling before the coffins and made this announcement on his visit to Lampedusa together with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. The fact is that this tragedy and the many that have preceded it are a direct result of the draconian measures introduced by successive governments to combat “illegal immigration”. And Italian governments have also been under pressure from the EU to tighten up on border controls. No wonder both Letta and Barroso were heckled by a crowd of protestors shouting “shame” and “killers” as they arrived on the island on Wednesday!

Unfortunately, this is not the first tragedy of its kind in this stretch of sea that separates the coast of Africa from Italy and Europe. It is in fact part of a long trail of deaths estimated to have reached 20 thousand victims in the past 25 years. The real figure could, however, be even higher because available statistics are based solely on what emerges from the international press.

The myth of illegal immigration

We have seen the tears abundantly shed in the bucket loads by government officials and MPs, but these are the very same politicians who have supported and voted for all the anti-immigration laws passed in recent years. What we have witnessed is in fact a long campaign on this question that began over two decades ago on the part of both the centre-left and centre-right through the various laws that have regulated immigration.

Migrants on their way to Lampedusa. Photo: Sara PrestianniMigrants on their way to Lampedusa
Photo: Sara Prestianni
This began with the Martelli Law of 1990 (named after its main sponsor, the then Deputy Prime Minister Claudio Martelli and leading figure in the PSI, the Socialist Party) The law was designed to appease Italy’s EU partners who saw Italian borders as the “open door” through which “illegal immigrants” could easily get into the EU as a whole. This was followed in 1998 by Law 40/98, the so-called Turco-Napolitano law, introduced by the then centre-left government (it is named after two leading DS, now PD, figures, Napolitano being today’s President of Italy). The law established procedures for the deportation of illegal immigrants and also allowed for their deportation after their case had gone before a magistrate.

Then we had the infamous Bossi-Fini law of 2002. (Bossi was the leader of the racist Northern League that was in a coalition with Berlusconi and Fini was leader of the ex-Fascist Alleanza Nazionale, also in coalition with Berlusconi). This law built further on the repressive content of all the previous laws. According to that law, illegal immigrants could be deported immediately even if they appealed to the courts. Furthermore, allowed for illegal immigrants to be taken to special detention centres under police control, where they could be held for up to 60 days and if found to be illegal immigrants, they could be ordered to leave the country within five days. If they do not abide by such orders, they are re-arrested and held for between six months and a year or deported. If they then return to Italy, they are arrested and taken to court.

The last act, in this ever-increasing pressure on “illegal immigrants", was the “security package" of 2009 which transformed illegal immigration into a crime. The law also increased by a third the punishment for irregular immigrants who commit a crime, with expulsion from the country if sentenced to two years or more. The new concept of “aiding and abetting irregular immigration” (i.e. giving work or providing shelter to irregular immigrants) became punishable by law. Also, the period in which illegal immigrants could be held in detention centres was increased to 180 days. Other measures included the obligation for an immigrant to provide a legal residence permit in order to benefit from welfare and assistance and the payment of up to €200 to get or renew a residence permit.

The European Parliament holding a minute of silence with its president in the foreground. Photo: European Union 2013 - European ParliamentThe European Parliament holding a minute of silence with its president in the foreground. Photo: European Union 2013 - European ParliamentAs we can see the laws governing “illegal immigration” have become progressively harsher over the years, and all of them have been inspired by the same culture and the same logic of “deportation”, specifically designed to abide by the provisions of the European Union. These laws have led to the creation of an immense army of “illegal”, “clandestine” immigrants, i.e. persons who by virtue of these laws cannot declare themselves legally on Italian soil.

What we have here is a phenomenon involving little more than 300 thousand people, in spite of the media beating constantly on about an “invasion”. The truth is that from the point of view of the capitalist economy these “illegal immigrants” are a very useful source of cheap labour to be used on the farms in the south and in the small businesses in the north, living and working in conditions of slavery, while at the same time being a useful lever with which to undermine workers’ rights in general. This is especially the case in agriculture and the textile industry where illegal employment is often the norm and is used to push downwards the conditions of all workers.

The ruling class through its newspapers rails against illegal immigrants and through its draconian laws creates the phenomenon of illegal immigration. And by introducing into the labour market people without any rights, and therefore workers who are more “competitive” because they are more easily exploitable, the bosses can produce more profit, undermine trade union rights and pave the way for racist ideology in an attempt to pit Italian workers against immigrant workers.

Of course the crime of aiding and abetting illegal immigration only serves to curb the phenomenon marginally, in the same way as one turns a water tap on and off according to the needs of the system, but its function is primarily ideological because it serves to build up the enemy, the culprit, the scapegoat. Among the factors that contributed to this latest tragedy off the coast of Lampedusa – not to mention the very denial of the right to freedom of movement – there is the fact that “aiding illegal immigration” is now a crime in itself.

It appears that several boats in the vicinity avoided approaching the immigrants in distress and failed to offer relief precisely because of the fear of being taken to court for a criminal offence! One fisherman who put aside such fears and rescued 47 says that the coastguards stopped him from saving more people. He approached the coastguards with those he had rescued and asked for permission to take them into the port so that he could go out again and rescue more, but he said his request was rejected, because it would have been “against protocol”. Of course, the official story is that everything was done to save those who were drowning!

All the victims in this latest carnage were in fact Eritreans and Somalis, which means that they are all persons having the right to request political asylum and international protection, as they were fleeing wars and ethnic, political, religious and gender persecution. In Italy, such refugees number a little over 60 thousand people, mostly from just five countries: Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Sudan, all of which are theatres of war. And what compounds the hypocrisy of the imperialist countries is that these wars are caused directly or by proxy by the imperialist powers themselves.


The Bossi-Fini Law focuses Italy’s policies for combating “illegal immigration” on deportations and bilateral agreements, especially with Libya, adopted by all governments whether they be centre-right, centre-left or technocratic. It has been estimated that since 2005approximately €1.6 billion have been spent on applying the policies of deportation. To these must be added also the money spent on building and maintaining Libyan prisons, which was agreed in deals reached between the Berlusconi government and Gaddafi in 2009 and reiterated last year between the Monti government and the new Libyan transitional government.

In the aftermath of the present Lampedusa tragedy, Alfano, the Minister of the Interior (belonging to Berlusconi’s party) has suggested bolstering and renewing these agreements, while Napolitano, the President, and the promoter of the concept of “illegal immigration” in the 1998 Act together with Turco, has suggested strengthening Frontex, the military border patrol operations which have been used to carry out the deportations to Libya. The words of the President of the Republic stand out for all their hypocrisy as he appears on the scene like a man of charity who declaims “we must never allow such tragedies to happen again” and then, even before he finishes his kind words, reiterates the need to systematically cut hundreds of millions of euros from welfare spending while at the same time increasing spending on the detention centres where torture, rape and even killings have been reported to have taken place!

Desperate refugees, big business opportunity for the bosses

These poor desperate people are forced to pay up to $15,000, selling everything they have, to cross the desert, arrive in Libya and attempt to get across the sea. In the process, they experience, violence, torture and prison, and risk their lives in the waters of the Mediterranean. In all this the Italian state has cynically exploited the situation allowing various companies to make large profits. This was the case during the so-called North Africa Emergency in 2011 after the outbreak of the war against Libya. Gaddafi as a reprisal against NATO countries emptied out those very same prisons built with Italian money and organized the collective deportation of around 60 thousand immigrants to Italy.

The island of Lampedusa. Photo: Luca SiragusaThe island of Lampedusa. Photo: Luca SiragusaOf these, many left Italy for other European countries, but 20 thousand remained. The then Minister of the Interior, Maroni of the Northern League, decided to entrust the Protezione Civile [Italy’s Civil Protection Department] with the task of coordinating the reception of these refugees, but in the absence of any norms of procedure and controls, this was done by tendering it to private bidders, companies, cooperatives and hotels that received from the state €1,400 per month for each refugee hosted. Very often the refugees were crammed into shacks and dilapidated apartments, deprived of healthcare, mediation services or access to the system of integration. These cases are confirmed by a number of complaints and reports that have appeared in the media.

The North Africa Emergency officially ended last February, leaving many of these refugees in the same helpless position they were in when they first arrived, but with various contractors’ pockets bulging with public money, a deal worth €1.5 billion, all at the expense of the welfare state and of the people who would have been entitled to a policy of protection and social integration. Of course, while their minister had promised lucrative deals to his businessmen friends, the local branches of the Northern League, during the months of the Monti government, had no qualms about launching a disgusting and deceitful campaign directed against refugees, in which they claimed that the State is supposed to have guaranteed a voucher of €46 per day. Here we see again how racist ideology, falsifying reality, has served to conceal the responsibilities and the crimes of the ruling class.

For an anti-racist and working class policy

This racist campaign has succeeded in gaining a foothold among some layers of the masses in these long years of war against immigration, and has succeeded in presenting a completely false image of reality. The truth is that immigrant workers is not a “rival” of the Italian worker in the workplace. It is the capitalist system of exploitation that requires the figure of the “illegal” immigrant worker that can be blackmailed. It is not the immigrant who is taking the public resources of an increasingly residual welfare state; it is the bourgeoisie that is cutting spending on education and healthcare while also taking advantage of the immigration “emergencies” (often caused by wars provoked by the bourgeoisie itself) and making large profits.

Only a pro-worker policy conducted with boldness on the part of a party that aims to rebuild a working class based left, can defeat racism and put an end to the tragedy of the deaths in the Mediterranean (and in the Sahara). The fact is that at present completely unrealistic solutions are being advanced on the left. It is pointless to call for a “reform” of the Bossi-Fini law such as removing the article that renders illegal immigration a crime. It is merely a cosmetic change that would leave the rest of the law – and the other previous laws on this question – as it was before, while at the same time providing legitimacy to one of the most odious and unjust laws of the right-wing in Italy. The whole law must be abolished! Nor would it be enough to simply request the opening of a channel that would provide humanitarian aid for refugees because, although this is clearly necessary, it would be extremely partial since it would not change one iota the conditions of exploitation and marginalization of immigrants in Italy.

What, instead, is required is a policy that starts out with the demand that all the anti-immigration laws be abolished and then moving on from the principle of the right to free movement, raises the demand for the nationalization under workers’ control of those companies that are either closing down and laying off workers or are exploiting illegal labour. This would be a way of uniting the working class as a whole, both Italian and immigrant workers. This is not an easy road to go down, but as was shown by the successful struggles of immigrant workers in the logistics industry, it can be done and such a struggle can win and extend the rights of workers. What is required, however, is that such struggles should be generalised and should be taken up by a working class based Left.

Originally published on FalceMartello: Lampedusa: la tragedia e il grande imbroglio


Since this article was written two MPs belonging to Grillo’s Five Stars Movement (M5S) have presented a request to amend the Bossi-Fini law, removing the article that makes illegal immigration a crime. The government, in the aftermath of the Lampedusa disaster, has indicated it would be favourable to such an amendment. However, Grillo has publicly disowned the two MPs, stating that such a change in the law would promote further arrivals of clandestine immigrants on Italy’s coats, thus revealing the profound reactionary nature of Grillo and other leaders of the M5S. He claims Italy cannot take in any more immigrants as there is not enough for the Italians! This shows that his perspective does not go beyond that of capitalism. Instead of explaining that there is plenty of money available, but that it is in the hands of a tiny capitalist minority, he contributes to pitting poor Italian workers against the poor immigrants.

The Northern League has gone a step further; not only opposing the amendment, but also suggesting Italy should send troops to countries such as Eritrea and Somalia to “sort out” the problems there. So while they claim Italy doesn’t have the finances to receive the desperate people fleeing these poor countries, it does have the resources for a military operation, basically a war of occupation. Again, this reveals the utterly reactionary nature of the Northern League.