The expanse of sea which extends from Fort St Elmo in Malta, to the Italian island of Lipari, La Golette (Tunisia) and the Gulf of Sirte is again the protagonist of an epoch-making clash between migrating peoples, ideologies, values and economic interests.
One of the most serious consequences of the North African crisis is that a huge flood of migrants will try to reach Europe’s shores by sea. The forecasts made by Frontex are indeed grim: the revolutions in North Africa could unleash a tidal wave of between half a million and one and a half million migrants, most of whom will try to reach Italy, Malta and Greece. For years now, hundreds of thousands of people have been massing on the shores of Africa in order to reach Europe.
The routes crossing the Mediterranean are mainly five. From the African Atlantic coast to the Spanish archipelago of the Canaries; From Morocco and Algeria to the Spanish coast of Andalusia and the Balearic Islands or to the two Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco; From Algeria to Sardinia; From Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to Sicily, Malta and the Italian islands of Lampedusa and Pantelleria; And, finally, from Turkey to Greece.
To this exodus caused by famine, political instability and conflict, is now added the by now certain stream of “political refugees” (both victors and vanquished) provoked by the civil war in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and the various Muslim countries overwhelmed by the domino effect of a veritable and unforeseeable “cultural revolution”.
Moreover, in Libya, where the final clash between the mercenary militias of the “revolutionary” Muammar Gaddafi and those rebelling against his regime is imminent, some 10,000 foreigners – Europeans, Americans, Turks, Chinese and Tunisians – are still trying to leave the country by all available means in order to reach the European mainland.
Three warships have left Italy and are already off the port of Misurata, in Libya, ready to transport back to Italy employees “stuck” there.
A Royal Navy Type-22 frigate is on standby and ready to help evacuate British citizens. A French warship entered the Grand Harbour. American warships have been put on alert to escort the catamarans that left Malta to evacuate US citizens who want to return home.
The sea is now whipped up by Force 6 northerly winds, which means any departures have to be delayed, even though the sea should soon be calm again, making the crossings possible.
“We have to be prepared for a migration of Biblical proportions,” according to the interior ministers of Malta, Italy, Greece, Spain and Cyprus, who met to deal with the crisis.
The creaky boats used to transport illegal refugees now seem to belong to another age; the last one carried 38 immigrants to Italy. The other day, 197 Tunisians landed in Lampedusa. So far, according to Italian Interior Ministry sources, about 6,300 Tunisians have arrived in Italy. Malta has so far been excluded from the migration route leaving the Tunisian coast but “the stormy Sicilian sea” will soon make itself felt even in Malta once the massacres in the streets of Tripoli are over.
“I am moving towards the 32⁰ 30’ parallel, the line of death, where we shall resist and fight with our backs to the wall”, a young Col Gaddafi had said, wearing a naval officer’s cap, aboard an anti-missile destroyer of the Libyan navy, affirming his determination to react to the American “provocation”, which then moved towards the Gulf of Sirte, the contested stretch of sea. That stretch, according to the Libyans, formed part of the country’s territorial waters whereas according to international law it should be considered international waters.
The day was January 26, 1986 and the start of the US-Libyan crisis that led to the American air raid over his residence in Tripoli on April 15, 1986. A quarter of a century has passed since then and the Gulf of Sirte is still a metaphor the Libyan regime uses to indicate the limit represented by the 32nd parallel as the “line of death” beyond which migrants are pushed towards the shores of Europe, in order to defend its own system of power and blackmail.
The ruins of his residence, bombed by the Americans 25 years ago, served as a backdrop for Col. Gaddafi’s delirious speech on TV last Monday. He did not wear a naval uniform this time, but a Bedouin outfit. He has never been a man of the sea. However, the enemies of his hallucinations were the same as those of 25 years ago. “I remain leader of the revolution until I die; we will again stop the Italians and the Americans”.
American, British, Italian ships – indeed ships of various countries – are off the shores of Tripoli. In a few days’ time, the waves of the fearsome sea of Sicily will calm down. One cannot foresee the turn of events. The only real hope is that the terrible massacre taking place on Libyan soil would not continue in the waters of the Mediterranean. Men of the sea are always ready to save lives. They are the protagonists of that culture, which, in any case, leads to the “saving” of a ship with its cargo of human beings and goods. And over the next few years many would have to be saved.