Human rights activists are up in arms over the decision by Italian officials to charge a group of fishermen for their involvement in bringing migrants ashore in Lampedusa last August.
Last week in a Sicilian courtroom, Italian prosecutors accused seven Tunisian men of aiding and abetting illegal immigration. They face 15 years in prison if found guilty. However, the accused men argue that were actually rescuing 44 migrants whose boat was on the verge of sinking.
Human rights activists say the move to threaten rescuers with criminal liability will effectively deter seamen from helping shipwrecked migrants. There are already many reported instances in which fishermen have turned their backs on stranded migrants.
The Tunisian fishermen landed in Lampedusa on August 8 with a boatload of North African migrants who repeatedly told UN High Commissioner for Refugees staff that they had been rescued. According to Giusto Catania, a member of the European Parliament with the Italian Refounded Communist Party, all seven fishermen also told the same story: they rescued the immigrants and contacted authorities in both Tunisia and Sicily before heading to land.
Catania believes that the court case will result in more deaths at sea: ‘This case has criminalized solidarity. If you’re afraid you’ll end up in jail for a month, it’s unlikely you’re going to help someone who is drowning’.
Data released from ‘Fortress Europe’, an Italian website that monitors the movements of migrants in Europe, indicates approximately 500 deaths reported in the Strait of Sicily this year and about 2,420 since 1994.