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Political clashes over the migrant crisis turn the Mediterranean into a battleground

August 2, 2017 at 6:15 PM EDT
So far this year, almost 2,400 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean. Italy is working to crack down on smugglers who send migrants on a deadly journey to Europe, and put stricter rules around rescue ships. But a group of right-wing, anti-immigrant activists is trying to take the crisis into their own hands by forcing migrants to turn back. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Italy’s Parliament today approved a plan to send a naval task force to Libya to crack down on smugglers who send thousands of migrants on a deadly journey across the Mediterranean to Europe. Italy put stricter rules around rescue ships run by charities in the area.

Amid this, a ship containing anti-immigrant activists is heading towards Libya on a mission to return migrants.

From Sicily, special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

MALCOLM BRABANT: At Trapani in Western Sicily, the routine rarely varies. Survivors of a disaster off the Libyan coast disembark from a charity ship. The injured and traumatized make landfall first. And then, shielded from the living by a line of hearses, come the dead.

Save the Children spokesman Rik Goverde:

RIK GOVERDE, Save the Children: They probably died of drowning, in combination with chemical burns, which is when seawater and fuel, when they react, they get — some bodies were just without skin. It was terrible.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The migrants were lifted from a deflating dinghy by rescuers from the Spanish charity Proactiva.

WOMAN: I am pregnant. I am dying.

MALCOLM BRABANT: So far this year, almost 2,400 have drowned in the Mediterranean. Last year, the death toll was 5,000.

WOMAN: There is 10 dead bodies at the boat. Three jump inside the water. The rest are inside the boat.

LEOLUCA ORLANDO, Mayor of Palermo, Sicily: It’s a cemetery. It’s a place so full of dead people, is a place that is a shame for the European Union. We cannot say we don’t know what is now happening in front of our eyes.

MALCOLM BRABANT: At city hall in Sicily’s capital, Palermo, Mayor Leoluca Orlando is exasperated by Europe’s reluctance to share Italy’s burden.

LEOLUCA ORLANDO: What is sure that, today, some European states, first of all, are responsible for what is happening.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But this new right-wing organization vehemently opposes the mayor’s open-borders agenda. It is militant about what it sees as the threat to Europe’s racial identity from Africa.

MAN: Every week, every day, every hour, ships packed with illegal immigrants are flooding the European border. An invasion is taking place.

MAN: This mass migration is changing the face of our continent. We’re losing our safety, our way of life. And we will become a minority in our own country.

MALCOLM BRABANT: They call themselves the Identity Generation. Trailed by police and opponents in Sicily, they quietly traveled to Cyprus, where a supporter filmed them.

They believe Europe can stop the influx by emulating Australia’s military strategy of intercepting migrant boats and returning them to the point of departure. They have chartered a ship called the C-Star, and it’s reportedly heading from Cyprus towards the Libyan coast. They say they will return any migrants they rescue.

Italian Lorenzo Fiato:

LORENZO FIATO, Italian Identitarian: Since when the NGOs started operating, the deaths in the sea increased. And the illegal immigration became more, more, more a problem. So, breaking the narrative of the NGOs that are literally a taxi service from Libya to Europe is the most important thing to do now.

PROTESTERS: No borders, no nations! Stop deportations!

MALCOLM BRABANT: The left-wing campaign group Avaaz signaled its opposition to the extremists by symbolically blocking the Sicilian port of Catania, from where the C-Star had originally been expected to begin its mission to Libyan waters.

Spokesman Luca Nicotra:

LUCA NICOTRA: We know they are trying to show their best face.

We know they are coming from the worst far-right movement all around Europe, some of them with neo-Nazi pasts. We know that, in May, they tried to literally stop one of the boats here in the port.

MALCOLM BRABANT: That was the Aquarius, jointly operated by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders.

Many volunteers insist the presence of rescue ships doesn’t entice migrants to make the desperate journey. They claim the push factors of conflict, intimidation or poverty in their homelands are stronger.

Dr. Craig Spencer, a public health specialist at Columbia University Hospital in New York, has just spent three months on the vessel.

DR. CRAIG SPENCER: For me, the question is, is it acceptable to you, is it acceptable to anyone to let someone drown? I hope everyone would answer no, that, no, it’s not acceptable to allow humans, children, even your worst enemy to drown unaccompanied in the middle of the Mediterranean.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But one Sicilian prosecutor is investigating allegations of collusion between the charities and Libyan smugglers.

Today, a German ship was stopped and searched by the coast guard before leaving the island of Lampedusa. This week, in an attempt to impose more control in the rescue zone, the Italian government has ordered the NGOs to sign a code of conduct.

Marcella Cray leads the Doctors Without Borders team on the Aquarius.

One of the accusations that’s sometimes leveled against organizations like yours is that you are in cahoots with the smugglers, that you’re communicating with them, so that you can actually pick these people up at sea. What is the situation?

MARCELLA CRAY, Doctors Without Borders: Well, what I can say is that in no way, shape, or form have we ever been in contact with any traffickers or anything like. We are patrolling the international waters north of Libya, looking for boats in distress.

We work with the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Rome, and they’re the ones that direct where we go, which rescues we do, and where we go afterwards to bring the people.

MALCOLM BRABANT: So there’s never any communication whatsoever?

MARCELLA CRAY: None whatsoever.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The Aquarius sailed for the rescue zone before the code came into force. Doctors Without Borders has refused to sign. It objects to having an armed police officer on board, and claims lives will be lost by a new rule demanding that ships return to Italy immediately once they have rescued migrants.

Previously, they could transfer survivors between ships and spend more time in the search-and-rescue zone. Today, the Italian Parliament approved plans to send a small naval task force into Libyan waters.

The internationally recognized Libyan government asked for help to crack down on traffickers responsible for sending 600,000 migrants to Italy since 2014. The European Union has just pledged to give Italy $120 million to help ease the migration burden.

But the president of the European Parliament has warned that the E.U. is underestimating the scale of this crisis. Antonio Tajani is predicting that millions of Africans will try to come to Europe in the next five years unless urgent action is taken. He says that the way to discourage them from coming is for there to be a massive program of investment in Africa.

This center for unaccompanied minors gave a taste of Italy’s problems to the man who wants to replace Angela Merkel as Germany’s chancellor. Martin Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament, now leads the Social Democratic Party as it heads towards September’s German general election.

And he visited Sicily late last week.

What do you think about the suggestion that there should be an Australian solution to try to stop the wave of migrants coming across the Mediterranean?

MARTIN SCHULZ, Chairman, Social Democratic Party of Germany: What we need are systems of legal immigration to make the distinction between attempt to join the territory of the European Union outside the legal frame, and the legal frame, which is giving hope, not a guarantee, but hope. And that’s what’s missing and lacking in Europe.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But do you not think that it’s worth taking away all the vessels because they’re acting as a pull towards Europe?

MARTIN SCHULZ: I think there’s a lot of activities of the security forces, but at the center of all our activities is, first of all, humanitarian aid.

MALCOLM BRABANT: At the memorial for those drowned in the Mediterranean, another question for the man campaigning to be the most powerful figure in the European Union.

Is there anything more that Europe could do to stop the deaths?

MARTIN SCHULZ: That’s the reason why I’m here. We need a fair share of the responsibilities.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But much of Europe isn’t listening, and isn’t softening either.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Malcolm Brabant in Sicily.

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