Another Gallipoli
On the Mediterranean, refugees are still fleeing the legacy of last century’s wars

Photo: Giuseppe Torretta

Last New Year’s Eve a boat landed at Gallipoli carrying around 700 people. It went unnoticed by most of the world. It certainly went unnoticed in Australia, where a different kind of Gallipoli is being commemorated.

The Gallipoli of New Year’s Eve was a port town in the province of Lecce in Italy, at the heel of that nation. The 700 passengers were Syrian and Kurdish. As an ironic footnote, the vessel – optimistically called Blue Sky – had left with its payload of refugees from Turkey.

Both towns – Italian and Turkish – derive their name from the Greek for “beautiful city”.

The scale of the refugee tragedy in the Mediterranean is almost impossible to contemplate. The 700 Gallipoli refugees brought the calendar year’s total number of arrivals in Italy alone to around 170,000 – mostly from the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, mostly embarking in Libya and Tunisia.

No one knows the true number, but the estimates are that at least 3000 drowned on their voyage across the Mediterranean in 2014. The number of deaths this year may well be even greater, and includes the estimated 700 who drowned off the coast of Libya last week. Only 28 survived the shipwreck, including two crew members. The survivors have spoken of killings by people smugglers even before they set sail.

Italy is bearing the brunt of this overwhelming flood, particularly in Sicily and Calabria. The tiny island of Lampedusa – closer to Africa than to Italy – hosts more than its share of the 3000 or more refugees who risk their lives to escape their homelands each week. If you care to look on the internet, it’s not hard to find stark images of rows of coffins on the wharf at Lampedusa in late 2013, when around 400 drowned off the rocks at Isole di coniglie, or Rabbit Island, one of the most beautiful beaches in the Mediterranean.

The response of the European Union has until now been at best lethargic; the current British prime minister – in election mode, fighting off UKIP – has been hostile to giving any assistance at all. For a year, the Renzi Italian government mounted a concerted rescue campaign – named Mare Nostrum, meaning “our sea” – which actively involved the Italian Navy and other agencies in rescuing refugees in their hundreds and thousands. This was supported by merchant maritime vessels, whose support for the international law of the seas has been exemplary. While Mare Nostrum officially ended last year, the naval rescues have continued.

The United Nations International Maritime Organisation has in recent days warned there may be as many as 500,000 refugees heading across the Mediterranean this year. Italian authorities have suggested the figure may be twice that. The European refugee agency, FRONTEX, is based in Warsaw (a legacy of past fears about migration from eastern Europe). Despite Italian pleas for the office to be relocated, the EU’s response has been dilatory. That may change soon: northern Europe is well aware that most of those who land in Sicily head north, away from the impoverished mezzogiorno of southern Italy. Norway, not a member of the EU, has promised naval assistance in the last week.

There are cruel ironies to all of this. The Allied invasion of Gallipoli in 1915 was an overt campaign to overwhelm the Ottoman empire, though its success came only after “the war to end all wars”, with the establishment of secular Turkey in 1923 and the postwar British and French carve-up of the Middle East. It is a legacy of failed colonialism that we are witnessing today in the brutal conflicts in Syria, Iraq and beyond, to Yemen and northern Africa. Little wonder that the vast majority of refugees making their way to Europe come from conflicts that derive directly from the side-deals done at the Versailles conference.

Italy itself is hardly innocent in all this. The Italians took Tripoli in Libya in 1911, and were one of Australia’s allies in World War One. Under Mussolini, Italy sought hegemony over Ethiopia and present-day Eritrea. “Mare nostrum” was also the phrase Mussolini used to describe the Mediterranean, outlining his imperial ambitions. The failed state of Libya is the primary source of refugees from doomed Italian colonial dreams, and the aftermath of British and French expansionism well after the failure of Gallipoli.

For Sicilians, the danger may be “refugee fatigue”. Non-government agencies are at stretching point, and even the many small towns across the island that host refugees have limits to their capacity. Unlike in Australia, perhaps, the notion of caritas is still a fundamental tradition here. The mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, is managing a precarious balance between support for the city’s Christian patron saint, Santa Rosalia, and building bridges with the Muslim population of the city, many of whom have arrived over the past quarter century.

Perhaps it's not surprising: Sicily has hosted invaders and occupiers for thousands of years, from the Phoenicians through to the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish and French, and onwards to the Americans in 1943. Diggers would have passed the island in 1915 from Naples, on their way to Egypt and the Dardanelles. And yes, Australians were based here in World War Two – many of them following combat in Tobruk, Libya.

Chips Mackinolty
Chips Mackinolty is a graphic designer, journalist and former adviser to the Northern Territory Labor government. He has contributed to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age, the Australian and the Bulletin.

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