We have now returned from a three-day visit to Sicily and Lampedusa. On October 21, we visited the Questura in Agrigento, where Eritrean families had come to identify the bodies of their loved ones. We observed that the process was disorganized. Many of the families were confused, distressed, and unable to obtain the information they were seeking.
Eritrean regime takes control
A representative of the Eritrean regime had taken over the process. The process should have been under the control of the Italian authorities, but it was not. This caused pain and delay to many of the families, who were not comfortable giving information to representatives of the regime. The representatives of the regime gave incorrect information out to the families. While presenting themselves as the rightful representatives of the Italian government, they circulated papers requesting payment of 150 Euros for DNA testing.
The Italian Red Cross had already offered to provide this service for free. These families are already in a great deal of pain. This deceptive, unprofessional process is an insult to the victims. The authorities of Agrigento must not allow regime supporters to misrepresent themselves as representatives of the Italian government.
A ‘funeral service’
We attended a so-called funeral ceremony, a gimmick arranged for the convenience of politicians. The survivors of the October 3 disaster, who are in desperate need of closure, were not permitted to attend. Many lost their brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, and dear friends in the Mediterranean on that day. None of the survivors were permitted to attend the ceremony. A further insult was delivered by the presence of Zemede Tekle and his supporters. Mr. Tekle is the Eritrean regime’s ambassador to Italy. He was invited to the ceremony by the vice prime minister of Italy. Mr. Tekle represents the same regime that the victims of October 3 fled from, the same regime that drove them across the Mediterranean where 366 of them perished. Mr. Tekle’s presence brought further pain to the families, who are still mourning their loved ones. Some of the families were so insulted that they called Angelino Alfano, the vice prime minister, “assassino.” Instead of seeking to understand their grief, he accused them of being accomplices of the human traffickers.
No access to refugee camp
On October 22, we arrived in Lampedusa. The authorities did not allow us to enter the refugee camp, even though the survivors themselves asked to see us. The survivors wanted us to be present as witnesses to their living conditions. We have been in contact with many of these individuals as they traveled through Ethiopia, the Sudan, and Libya. Some of the survivors who we met are young men and women, not yet of legal age, who made the journey alone. Among them were survivors of torture, kidnapping, rape, and human trafficking. They need assistance from psychological and medical professionals. Some of the survivors have lost their spouses and children. Their loved ones’ bodies were moved from Lampedusa to Agrigento without their knowledge or authorization. When the survivors asked to be at the so-called funeral ceremony, their request was denied. They then went on a hunger strike for twenty-eight hours.
Accusation against Italian navy
The survivors had many questions for us. They do not know when they will leave Lampedusa, or where they will be taken. The uncertainty adds to their stress. Regarding the October 3 disaster, we collected testimonies that two boats, which the survivors believe to be from the Italian Navy, circled around their boat and did not help. It was out of desperation, when these two boats failed to provide assistance, that the captain started a fire. Had the two boats intervened, the survivors told us, not a single life would have been lost. They blame the Italian Navy for the loss of 366 lives. They are prepared to appear before any court and testify to what they have witnessed.
We demand an investigation by an independent body.
- We demand that the government of Italy formally apologize for insulting the survivors and not allowing them to attend the so-called funeral ceremony.
- We demand that the government of Italy grant citizenship to the survivors of the October 3 disaster, as it did to those who died.
- We demand that all countries of the European Union welcome the survivors of this trauma as refugees, grant them asylum, and assist with their resettlement.
- We demand immediate treatment for the survivors by psychological and medical professionals.
- We demand the transfer of all migrants now held at Lampedusa to refugee camps where they can claim refugee status.
- We demand financial assistance for the survivors, to compensate them for their ordeal, and provide for their basic daily needs.
Father Mussie Zerai
October 24, Palermo