July 23, 2004,
The featured tale of the Cap Anamur, whatever the tangled inside stories, brings wretchedly to mind the sovereign dilemma of modern life, which is: What is to be done with unwelcome people?
The story caught the headlines when the ship's German crew captain, first mate, and head of the relief organization that runs Cap Anamur were hauled away to an Italian jail, where they rested for five days, charged with aiding and abetting illegal immigration.
Everybody pleaded everything; mostly false, it proved. The ship is part of a German seagoing enterprise whose mission is to rescue shipwrecked human beings. One wouldn’t think this a full-time occupation there aren't that many shipwrecked people sitting about every day in the open seas but never mind. The Cap Anamur did have 37 African passengers aboard when it hove into Porto Empedocle, on the southern coast of Sicily. One of the Germans told the authorities that the 37 passengers were Sudanese refugees from the terror and starvation associated with the oppressions of Darfur.
The Italian authorities looked into the records and the itinerary of the 300-foot ship, shook their heads and said: No. No disembarkation.
It transpired that 1) the passengers were not Sudanese. They were (mostly) from Nigeria and Ghana. 2) They were not refugees, who are defined as persons who are fleeing persecution, and therefore entitled to shelter. 3) Porto Empedocle was not the first port of call. They had been refused refuge in Malta because, one discovered, here too they weren't classified as refugees. 4) The tale of their having been picked up from a sinking rubber raft was not established. 5) The bona fides of the German crew were not established. The Italian authorities have threatened the principal executive of the relief organization 12 years in jail and a fine of $18,500 per passenger.
In midweek, the passengers were fed into an airplane and flown back to Africa.
What especially galls is the bare-bones story. Here were 37 Africans who wanted desperately to leave their native countries, were glad to misrepresent their provenance, and conspired in some way with the German activists to devise a shipwreck story and refugee status to try to get access to Europe. What they ended up with wasn't green cards to Italy but political headlines in the Italian press. Nobody (who got much notice) was pleading that the passengers should be admitted into Italy. Rather, the question was whether Italy’s tough laws against illegal immigration were tough enough. The world was reminded that victims of shipwreck are entitled to put in to the port of call nearest to where they were rescued, which would have been in Libya, if the captain's tale is true on that point. But nobody wanted to go to Libya. And Malta had said no, so here they were in Sicily, and, at this writing, they will have landed some place on the west coast of Africa.
Immigration laws always sound harsh and even indefensible when trained on palpable human beings. When Cubans fleeing Castro petition the U.S. for entry, they can usually make it into the country if they prove that they are objects of persecution at home. Individual Cubans like individual Nigerians can make such cases, and often succeed. What isn't easy to do is to make corporate cases against life in the discarded country. To demonstrate that life in Africa can be, and often is, a can of worms won't get you past immigration. And immigration laws are based on sound and eminently defensible concerns, cultural and economic. Fox Butterfield of the New York Times wrote soon after the Cultural Revolution in China that every Chinese would gratefully emigrate to the United States if given the opportunity. It is because not all Chinese are permitted to immigrate that some Chinese have done so to their benefit and to the benefit of the United States. Unless immigration laws can distinguish between individuals and whole populations, the relative benefits of life in the desired country would not continue. If everybody in Nigeria and Ghana who wished to do so could enter into Italy, in due course life in Italy would cease to have any advantages over life in Nigeria and Ghana.
Even so, the problem of turning people away, especially those who present themselves in the bedraggled shape of men and women living week after week in a freighter, challenges basic philanthropic impulses. Castaways are castaways even if themselves responsible for their international status as vagrants. A great novel, The Camp of the Saints, appeared thirty years ago featuring great boatloads of Africans arriving in the south of France in legions too great to be simply turned aside, like the Cap Anamur. What to do? Starve them? Shoot them? We don't do that kind of thing but what do we do when we run out of airplanes in which to send them back home?