Lampedusa disaster victims | Credit: - Photo: 2013

The Lampedusa Tragedy: Why Sons Could Not Mourn Their Mothers

By Mirjam van Reisen* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

BRUSSELS (IDN) – In the early morning of October 3 a tourist was enjoying the beautiful quiet beach of the Italian Mediterranean Island when three swimmers appeared. Three African young men frantically asked for help. They had left their mothers behind in a ship on sea that was on fire.

The ship had made the crossing that night and had reached the 800 perimeter of Lampedusa with over 500 passengers on board. While waiting to be able to offload the passengers, the ship was pushed away from the shore. When the captain tried to start the engine to bring his ship back into the perimeter, it didn’t work. He then decided to seek attention to get help by making a basket-fire. He burnt himself and threw the burning rod in the boat, rather than in the sea. The passengers on the boat panicked and rushed to one side. Inside the boat, in the cabins, women and children were asleep. Locked in the cabins, they would not survive the journey. Only six women made it alive.

The survivors were these mothers’ sons, sons of Eritrea, who could swim and were strong enough to make it. This is part of the testimony journalist Meron Estefanos and Father Mussie Zerai heard when they went to Lampedusa (on October 21). There were only 155 survivors. The Italian coast guard states that the death toll could go up to 400. Most of the passengers were refugees from Eritrea.

The government of Eritrea denied that the survivors were Eritreans while the President of Italy offered citizenship to those that had died, but not to the survivors. Survivors and family members from Eritrea called for the bodies to be brought home. The Italian President announced a state burial.

As it became clear that the majority of the victims were indeed Eritreans, the scenario rapidly changed. The Mayor of Lampedusa was no longer in control. The state burial was abandoned. Bodies were hurriedly buried in different places on the island without the consent of the families. Eritrean officials took over the process. While the Italian Red Cross had already offered to take DNA tests so that the victims could be identified, the Eritrean officials misled survivors by asking €150 for a DNA test– an amount they would obviously not have. The survivors were intimidated, as their pictures were taken. They were locked up in detention centres. They could not attend the funerals, and were not invited to the memorial service. They went on hunger strike to mourn their mothers.

Why are they risking their lives?

Boats with each 200 and 150 passengers on board arrived on October 24 and 25 (and these were also mostly Eritreans) in Lampedusa. This has triggered the question that everyone is thinking: why are people risking their lives knowing the peril and the dangers?

EU President Manuel Barosso asked this question rhetorically when he was looking at a coffin in which a mother was laid to rest with a newborn baby.

Journalists have asked the question over and over again to migration experts in the previous two weeks.

Meron Estefanos and Fr. Mussie asked this question to the young men and boys that survived. The answer was simple: they would rather die on sea in a spirit of hope than perish in the torture camps of traffickers and cruel detention centres in Libya, Chad, Egypt, Sinai and Yemen.

An EU Summit of Heads of State addressed this question on October 25. A Task Force for the Mediterranean will work out proposals to be adopted at the next Summit in December. It is hoped that this task force will aim to understand what refugees are fleeing from and why they are taking such desperate risks.

Wrong priorities

The EU is in danger of addressing the wrong priorities. Military equipment and drones are no answer to such large numbers of desperate refugees who are ready to risk their lives even if they need to swim over the Mediterranean. Instead of militarisation we need to create safe places and communities for refugees, where those that are survivors of trafficking can heal and raise awareness. The EU needs to strengthen a policy of dialogue and involvement of the communities concerned. We are all to gain from this.

The decency of a country can be measured by the way in which it treats those that have died. For Eritrea the tragedy is that it did not receive the bodies of the mothers and children of its soil that died that early morning on the sea. For Italy the tragedy is that it could not provide a dignified burial for those that perished. For the EU the tragedy of Lampedusa is that it failed to be the place of decency where sons could respectfully mourn their mothers.

*Prof. Dr. Mirjam van Reisen, professor International Social Responsibility at the Tilburg University, is author of ‘Human Trafficking in the Sinai: Refugees between life and death’, Wolf Legal Publishers, 2012. She is founding director of the Europe External Policy Advisors (EEPA) in Brussels and member of the International Commission on Eritrean Refugees (ICER). [IDN-InDepthNews – October 26, 2013]

The writer’s previous IDN articles:

Related links:
Open letter from the Mayor of Lampedusa to the European Union

Picture: Lampedusa disaster victims | Credit:

2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Send your comment | Subscribe to IDN newsletter

Follow us on Twitter and Facebook:

Related Posts

Begin typing your search term above and press enter to search. Press ESC to cancel.

Back To Top