Over the last few days, the news around the world has been covering the tragic loss of more than 900 refugees in the Mediterranean Sea. But, while this may be news to North Americans, but Middle Easterners and Africans have been travelling back and forth to Sicily since the 11th century BCE. Sicily and Sicilians have been influenced by the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Byzantines, and the Islamic army made up of Arabs, Berbers, Moors, Saracens, and Persians. This influence can be seen from the architecture in Palermo to the baths at Cefala Diana to the couscous festival in Trapani to the towns with names that harken back to early Arabic.
“Wherever you go in Sicily, you will come across towns and villages bearing names of Arabic origin: Caltagirone, Caltanisseta, Caltabellotta and Caltavuturo all derive from the Arabic calta for castle, the gibil in Mongibello, Gibilmanna and Gibellina’ denotes mountainous locations, Regalbuto, Racalmuto and Regaliali all stem from rahl, meaning area or village, and Mislimeri signifies the resting place of the Emir (Manzil-Al-Emir). Marsala, or Mars’Allah is God’s Port, and Alcamo was founded by the Muslim General Al-Kamuk…
Arabic surnames survive too, with Salimbeni, Taibbi, Sacca’, Zappala’, Cuffaro and Micicchè fairly common reminders of Sicily’s partly North African geneology.
And when Sicilians choose to communicate in dialect, their conversations are strewn with words of Arabic origins, a few examples being cassata (qashata – cheese), gebbia(già-bìa – water tank for irrigation), zagara (zahr – orange blossom) and mischinu(miskin –poor/unfortunate person).”
In modern times, Sicilians have been aware of the trafficking of North and Sub-Saharan Africans back and forth between the Sicilian island of Lampedusa and Libya since 2000. And, as always, nations play with the lives of those who live without privilege, power, and often hope. Early in the 2000s, the Italian and Libyan governments made a secret deal in which Libya agreed to accept all African deportees from Italy, a secret deal that meant that by 2005 there was a mass repatriation across the Mediterranean. This return of unwanted immigrants to Libya helped build an unwanted illegal business – that of unscrupulous Libyan smugglers who took large sums of money to ferry desperate people in rickety boats back to the shores of Lampedusa. The numbers of refugees continued to grow until by 2009, the temporary refugee centre in Lampedusa was brimming with more than double the number of illegal migrants than it had originally been built to hold. The Arab Spring brought a whole new wave of migrants. By the end of August in 2011, over 48,000 refugees had arrived, mostly young men. Over the last four years, the waves of illegal immigrants into Sicily have been steadily increasing and making riskier and riskier crossings in the hopes of making a new life in Europe. Desperate refugees from Syria, Libya, Eritrea, Somalia, Pakistan and Palestine are fleeing to boats on the most dangerous migrant crossing in the world – over 1700 people have perished since the beginning of April. To put the numbers in real perspective, over 11,000 migrants have been rescued in the same time period. That means, in the last 3 ½ weeks, almost 13,000 people have attempted to make the crossing from Libya to Sicily that we know of.
So much about this saddens me…
- These people are so desperate to leave their homes, they will scrape together the equivalent of $1500US each to climb aboard these unseaworthy vessels.
- The powers that be have been looking the other way for years – in fact, the EU had just cut the budget for Mediterranean Sea patrol programs in spite of the continued increase of refugees.
- So much of what is happening in Africa and the Middle East today has its roots in colonialism yet the countries most at fault do little to ease tensions. I include Canada and the US in this category because, even though North America was colonized, the people who are in power now and the people who hold the purse strings, for the most part are descended from the colonizers and still often play that role in the world.
- The Global North, with all its privilege, continues to place profit before people and the environment. All of this plays into the situation in Africa which leads people to flee their homes.
- The United Nations often stays mute on what is happening in Africa while focusing on other, more profitable and more “important” (at least to the Global North) parts of the world. Think Rwanda.
- Countries – and I include Canada in this – are making it harder for refugees to stay even though all evidence shows that refugees work harder and do better in the long term than many other immigrants.
Don’t believe me on this last one? According to IIE (a field office of the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants), “Refugee workers…Strengthened by adversity, they make capable, resilient, and loyal employees.”
In Canada, the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society says, “…the majority of these new arrivals bring positive working habits such as loyalty, hard working [sic], etc. to the new workplace…”
Yet, in spite of all this, refugees struggle to find and keep work in their new countries.
And they do this in spite of an almost blanket experience of PTSD – another area in which help is being repealed. “[Canadian] Feds deny funding for BC’s largest refugee mental health agencies, leaving hundreds of trauma victims without help.”
I want to end this post with a (longish) quote from the most recent print edition of The Economist.
“THE European Union likes to boast that it is a force for good. But in the past ten days as many as 1,200 boat people have drowned in the waters of the Mediterranean. An unknown number were refugees from Syria, Eritrea and Somalia fleeing war or persecution. They perished in part because the EU’s policy on asylum is a moral and political failure…
“Officials say 1m migrants are camped on the southern shore of the Mediterranean, waiting to embark on a life that is incomparably better than the one they are leaving behind. The Arab world is engulfed in fighting that is likely to last decades and which has set whole nations adrift. Chunks of Africa are prey to sectarian and ethnic strife and to environmental depredation. An enclave of stability and wealth in an ocean of violence, Europe has not begun to grapple with the choices ahead…
“…the plight of Europe’s boat people also exposes the failings of countries with a duty to shelter them. In Europe that starts with a breakdown of ethics. The EU is putting only a third as much money and less than a tenth of the manpower into maritime rescue as it did last year. Several countries, including Britain, argued that a high chance of being rescued acts as a “pull” factor which only encourages more migrants. In effect, the EU was proposing to stand back and watch one lot of innocent people drown so as to deter another from following them into boats. That logic was wrong as well as morally repugnant.
“Although UN conventions say refugees are the responsibility of the country where they turn up, allies have sometimes shared the burden… But co-operation in Europe has been in short supply. Although leaders negotiate asylum policy at the EU level, they jealously guard their national powers. That way, mindful of public opinion and the threat from anti-immigration parties, they can both cynically deflect responsibility towards Brussels and also avoid having to accept many flesh-and-blood refugees. Last year 626,000 people applied for asylum to the EU (only a fraction of them came by boat); roughly half of the applicants who were processed were successful. France granted asylum to 15,000; Britain to only 11,000. Despite honourable exceptions, including Germany, with 41,000, and Sweden, with 31,000, most countries wish the problem would go away.
“If the EU is to live up to its values, it must act on many fronts at once, from saving lives at sea to helping countries with the greatest burden. EU leaders are right to boost the rescue mission—but it needs to be much bigger, larger even than the one in operation last year. The EU is also right to take on the people-smugglers. But they will be resilient, as the profits are irresistible and the supply of crew members almost inexhaustible.
“The best way to stop the boats is for camps to process asylum applications to Europe on the south shore of the Med. If camps are seen to work, refugees will prefer them to the risk of drowning. Setting them up will not be easy. The EU will have to pay north African countries to host them. Asylum-processing must be fast, fair and efficient. The economic migrants who are rejected need to be sent back home. And member states must sign up to their share of refugees—which should be well within the scope of 500m wealthy EU citizens.”
If you would like to read another blog on the subject, I would recommend the MigrantSicily blog, hosted by blogspot.