Hardly reported in the mainstream media, nearly 200 people lost their lives in the Mediterranean this weekend as they fled North Africa to seek a new life in the West.
Their deaths bring the total number of refugees to 1,150 who have died so far this year trying to reach Europe, while the high number of illegal immigrants making the journey is putting further strain on Italy’s government.
Since 2014, an average of 3,500 people have died each year while trying to make the journey to Italy from North Africa.
The issue has been a central concern of Pope Francis who has frequently called for broader involvement to save the lives of those crossing the Mediterranean, visited the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2013 where many refugees arrive, and regularly condemned human trafficking.
As so often happens and often on purpose, smugglers overloaded a boat with passengers which started to take on water and sink on Saturday, causing 80 people out of 120 to go missing at sea.
The Italian coastguard rescued the few survivors, including the smuggler, after they had spent a long time in the water, according to the Italian bishops’ newspaper, Avvenire.
The Italian authorities have said they saved 407 refugees over the weekend who, like the survivors of the boat that lost 80 souls, were brought to the Southern Sicilian port of Pozzallo, near Ragusa.
Meanwhile, another wreck took place over the weekend off the coast of Libya, leading to 113 deaths, according to the International Organization for Migration. The Libyan authorities managed to save just 7 people, six men and a woman, off the coastal town of Az Zawiyah.
Large numbers of refugees are regularly fleeing north Africa: just during Saturday night and early Sunday morning, 2,120 migrants arrived in Sicilian and Calabrian ports, and an estimated 6,000 crossed the Mediterranean over the entire weekend, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees.
The UN agency estimates that 1,150 people have disappeared or died before reaching continental Europe in 2017, while 43,000 have been saved. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Italian diplomat Filippo Grandi, said the figures show that sea rescues are “more important than ever” and he praised the work of the Italian coastguard and non-governmental organizations, although some NGOs, and possibly civil authorities, have recently been at the center of allegations of colluding with the traffickers.
The extent of the problem has caused much heated debate in the country. Paolo Romani, president of the Forza Italia party in the Italian senate, said: “Enough is enough. The Italian government cannot assist, in an inert manner, the daily invasion of migrants into our country.”
Senator Maurizio Gasparri, a former minister in the government of Silvio Berlusconi, said that in the face of more than “3,000 illegal immigrants arriving in Italy, is the Italian government sleeping?”. While another senator, Lucio Malan, an evangelical, said the country cannot continue to accept “indiscriminately, day after day, this number of people” as he said “our cities and our immigration system are close to collapse.”
But Archbishop Salvatore Pappalardo of Syracuse said refugees should be rescued and welcomed whatever their circumstances.
"We can not remain passive spectators of tragedies burning before our eyes,” he told Avvenire. First of all, he stressed the acceptance of refugees, a problem that “cannot be evaded on account of possible illicit activities connected with the phenomenon which, if they exist, should be severely dealt with.”
He added that the illegalities should not “muffle or deaden the voice of our conscience” which “cannot be insensitive to the suffering of so many men, women, children forced by war and famine to leave their countries.”