Fishermen deny ignoring capsized refugees

Fishermen from Lampedusa throw a wreath into the sea at the site of the sinking. Picture: Getty
Fishermen from Lampedusa throw a wreath into the sea at the site of the sinking. Picture: Getty
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A flotilla of Italian fishing boats has motored into rough seas off the island of Lampedusa to drop a bouquet of flowers near the spot where more than 100 African refugees drowned when their boat caught fire and sank last week.

Some of the fishermen reacted angrily to reports that local vessels had sailed past after the refugees’ boat capsized about a kilometre off the Italian coast early on Thursday.

It is feared 200 people – mostly Somalis or Eritreans – are missing after the 65ft vessel went down. So far 111 bodies have been recovered. There are 155 survivors.

It is believed a fire was deliberately started on board the vessel to attract attention after its engine developed a fault.

Around ten fishing boats headed out to the site of the shipwreck in choppy seas on Friday to drop the flowers and blast their horns in tribute to those who perished.

Reports that at least one local boat ignored the stranded refugees have prompted calls for an investigation.

Italian MP Pia Locatelli, who visited survivors yesterday, said they claimed that a boat had circled them with a light and then had gone away. They also saw one or two boats in the distance before the fire.

“They were absolutely sure the boat went around their own vessel,” Locatelli said, adding that they were unable to offer a further description of the boat involved.

Many skippers of Italian fishing boats are reluctant to come to the aid of ships thought to be carrying illegal immigrants, fearing they could face prosecution.

“To come to the rescue is a duty. Not to come to the rescue is a crime,” said Laura Boldrini, speaker of the Italian parliament and previously the United Nations Refugee Agency spokeswoman in Italy.

She said it was a misinterpretation of Italian law to conclude that offering aid to people in need on the open sea could in any way result in criminal charges. In addition, she said the refugee issue needed to be tackled in the countries of origin – and not with punitive measures against those fleeing misery and violence.

She cited an Italian law that makes entering Italy a crime. In keeping with the law, a prosecutor in Sicily has confirmed he is preparing a case against the refugees – a procedure hampered by their poor grasp of Italian and lack of documents.

“We won’t ever solve the problem with repressive measures,” Boldrini said. “It is unthinkable that someone who flees wars or death will stop in front of the hypothesis of a crime.”

She said she had spoken to one 27-year-old who had been forced to serve in the Eritrean military for eight years.

“They said how much they paid, how families indebted themselves, how they flee to find a life of peace and security, and also to pay back their families,” Boldrini said.

Fishermen, including one who saved several dozen refugees after the sinking, said offering help to those in need was part of their code.

“It’s the law of the sea,” Vito Fiorini said. “If you find somebody in need you must immediately help. How could you turn away when you see a person who needs help?

“They do help all the time, it’s unthinkable that a fisherman of Lampedusa would pretend to see nothing.”