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Giorgio Schultze, Humanist, activist for decades in the struggle for human rights, above all those of migrant communities, lives in Sicily and is a correspondent for Pressenza. Last Friday we interviewed him for the programme En La Oreja International on Radio Pichincha Universal, Quito, Ecuador to talk about the situation of migration. Below is the transcript of the complete interview for Pressenza readers.
En La Oreja: This week we’ve seen some of the most disturbing images possible. 800 human beings died when the boat they were using to reach the coast of Europe sank. Recent data published by Oxfam shows that in the year 2014 3500 people died in the Mediterranean in the same way. It’s estimated that this year alone some 300,000 people will try to cross the Mediterranean coming from African countries such as Eritrea, Mali, Nigeria, Gambia and Somalia among others. Can you tell us something about what’s happening, Giorgio?
Giorgio Schultze: Yes, in truth, what is happening is much worse. There are more than one million people on the Libyan coast some of whom have been waiting for five or six years already to cross the Mediterranean. And what is happening is that, if we add together all those who are running away from wars or from a situation of hunger or from exploitation in Africa and the Middle East, we see that there are more than 10 million people migrating, some of whom are right now crossing the Sahara Desert or crossing different parts of Asia in order to get as close to Europe as possible.
This is one of the gravest problems that humanity has seen because we are dealing with much more than 3500. In reality, many die before even getting on a boat; or the boat sinks before setting out to cross the Mediterranean. Just recently, on the coast of Sicily, we had many deaths, and the bodies were counted directly by the fishermen who told us the real disaster situation of seeing so many in many places where they’ve never seen boats of migrants before.
So the situation is really a very serious one. And what happens moreover is that Europe is not giving responses, independently of what the Italian population is doing – and here we should highlight some very interesting elements of what I believe we are going to talk about in this interview – but what is happening is that Europe is not responding as a region of peoples, but rather as a region that must defend itself almost from an invasion.
So the response is almost one of war, of threatening war… It’s the most surreal thing you could see on this continent.
ELO: Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said yesterday something like Italy is in a state of war with human traffickers, and he says that he wants to take military measures to confront the problem. How do you see it?
GS: The Prime Minister is giving responses to the final effects of what is happening and nothing structurally. What’s happening is that, even though there is a situation that traffickers are taking advantage of, those who are managing the situation on the Libyan coast, all of this is the final part of the picture.
What’s happening is that there are more than 10 million people coming from Sudan, Eritrea, Egypt, from all these countries such as Mali, Congo, Nigeria, all of whom are escaping from situations of exploitation or war. All of this, from Europe, from Italy. Responses are not being given to this. Moreover, the concern in Italy, really, is for the gas coming from Algeria and Tunisia, and for the oil and gas coming from Libya.
These are the real concerns of our Prime Minister. It has nothing to do with the problem of resolving the question that millions and millions of people are coming from Africa and the Middle East. So, here’s the problem. They aren’t trying to resolve either the economic questions, or the problems of exploitation. To give just one example: what is happening in Congo with the exploitation of coltan miners, the mineral used to produce our smart phones, no one talks about what is happening in Congo. And here millions of people are escaping, and the same goes for Sudan in the oil fields where the population is being exploited and killed, the same goes for parts of Nigeria.
ELO: Could you expand on the relationship between the economic interests of gas and the situation of the migrants?
GS: The biggest Italian multinational company is ENI, an oil company that has interests together with AGIP precisely in Libya, Tunisia and Algeria. So, they are interested in controlling those territories. And they don’t care about the situation regarding what is happening to the people coming from other parts of Africa. What they are interested in is having control, above all military control, in order to be able to continue exploiting the gas and oil resources located in those areas.
That goes for Italy, but also France has the same oil interests in Algeria, so do the Brits and the Dutch. Different European interests and others from the USA in order to keep military control of those regions. And this gives, let’s say it like this, the element to continue with this control, that started with the colonies of a few decades ago, and to continue with this control that is not only commercial but also military. It’s almost a need to control and to not resolve the problem of migration that is happening, or the situation of poverty and hunger.
ELO: It’s clear that we are facing a humanitarian problem. How do these immigrants reach Italy? How are they received? How are they treated by the government and by the Italian population?
GS: By the government, there is an institution that is really just a prison, a form of putting together people in centres that are prisons. Of course people can more or less leave, but they are controlled like in a prison and let’s say that the hygiene situation, the human situation is of a truly disastrous level; also because of what happens to women, children, the oldest, who are arriving, those who arrive already sick and get no kind of specific help.
We should point out the role of the civil population, not only on Lampedusa, but also in Sicily, and all around southern Italy, who are giving the possibility of direct help to people. They go to the beaches to help people reach the land and they also help the people in their homes, they give them a plate of something hot, they give them the possibility to stay and sleep. The absurd thing is that those who host these immigrants arriving like this can end up in trouble with the law because they are helping people who are not recognised, and so because of this they can end up in prison, just like the Italian fishermen who have tried to help those in the sea, they find themselves in court for this kind of help.
ELO: It’s perverse, no?
GS: Of course, because just as is set out in the Maritime code, you have to help, it’s doesn’t matter who it is, if someone is in the sea and asks for help, they have to be helped. In reality, in the moment that a fisherman or someone on the beach helps one of these people, because they are clandestine, then they can be imprisoned for helping a clandestine person. It’s the most surreal thing, really, what is happening. Many people who are also breaking the law in Italy are helping the people; this is the most interesting thing.
Also, in some towns they accept clandestine immigrants and give them a home and work, in order to also give this person the possibility to integrate and start to find a bit of happiness, or at least, freedom, in this continent. But what I see is that the government either looks the other way, or really is trying to resolve the problem, not in the most radical way, but rather in a way substantially linked to big businesses and multinationals.
ELO: From what we see, European governments have changed their policies of protection, of support, and have reduced the budgets for these policies. So migrants are even more vulnerable and more unprotected. Is that right, Giorgio?
GS: Yes, precisely. In reality, some ten years ago people spoke about integration, of the possibility to give healthcare, education to those arriving, regardless of whether they were clandestine or not. In truth, now there is a very rigid regime and nothing is given, on top of this they try everything to expel these people and return them to the situation from which they were trying to escape.
So, many people on the coast of Libya are trying to escape from this truly terrifying situation, because they are defenceless in that situation and also exploited there. And those who have tried to escape are sent back to Libya. So it seems to be a circle from which it is impossible to leave.
ELO: Giorgio, do you think that through the media coverage that is given to the conflict (which at least makes everyone aware of the situation) it can achieve that Europe becomes “forced” into having to give another kind of response which is not that of criminalisation and persecution of all these people who are so in need?
GS: Yes, I think there’s another possibility, and this comes through what some humanist friends were saying a while ago: Europe (above all southern Europe) must start to imagine itself as a Mediterranean region also including the countries of Africa and the Middle East and from here start political, social and economic processes that give a different response, one that the banks, the European Central Bank, can’t give; not the one of Germany but rather something that has to do with a very different social process.
You see what is happening in Greece, they are being beaten to their knees. So, they [the banks] don’t want to solve the problem of Greece’s economic situation, they want to exploit a situation for financial gain. And this is the Europe that we know until now. Also Italy is in a very difficult situation from the financial and economic point of view, and we are going to end up more or less like Greece, hanging and waiting for them to give us charity.
So, I believe that the response in the future will be to completely change the political and economic geography and put in place a different vision, not only in economic terms or of use of resources, but also the option of the people and of unity of the peoples in a different way, with solidarity.
This is the only possibility to get out of these two extremes: the Europe that has to defend itself like a castle and, on the other hand, an invasion of desperate people. It’s not a process that is going to lead to social progress. I believe that it will be through necessity that the peoples of Europe will have to give a completely different response to the one that our current governments are giving, one which goes in the direction of manipulation and territorial control.