Sicily’s Refugees’ Boats Graveyard

Dear Reader,

Sicily’s southernmost community, Portopalo di Capopassero (Marzamemi), is often the witness of the arrival of hundreds of refugees escaping from North Africa seeking asylum, work opportunities, or simply a safer life.

Arab Refugee Ship Graveyard Portopalo di Capopassero Sicily Stanito

After risking their lives, hundreds of migrants attempt to cross the Mediterranean sea in search for a asylum. Their boats then lie abandoned in the harbour of Portopalo di Capo Passero, Sicily’s south-east corner. The stretch of sea between the island and North Africa, known in Arabic as Madiq Qilibiyah (strait of Kelibia), is crossed every year by thousands of migrants on their way to Europe. Many of the boats they sail on, usually former fishing boats sold for scrap and often basically wrecked or about to break down, and they end up abandoned on the Sicilian shores.

Arab Refugee Ship Graveyard Portopalo di Capopassero Sicily Stanito 2

Migrants spend days on small fishing boats, completely at the mercy of the sea and the boat’s crew members.

Arab Refugee Ship Graveyard Portopalo di Capopassero Sicily Stanito 3

Boats such as these ones we photographed sinking in the port of Marzamemi, are old, disarmed fishing boats, most likely at the end of their career and definitely not safe for such a long and risky sail.

What happens to these boats after they’re piled up?
Eventually the Italian authorities will have to take care of the growing presence in these small ports in Sicily. While these boats might have probably been sold by North African ship owners to make some good money instead of scrapping them, it will be Italian taxpayers who eventually will end up paying for this.

Arab Refugee Ship Graveyard Portopalo di Capopassero Sicily Stanito 4

What happens in most cases is that boats break down during the crossing, leaving their passengers stranded at sea for days until they are rescued by someone on the other side. With each migrant paying a certain sum for the trip, hundreds of boats cross every year making this a lucrative business which guarantees huge profits to organized criminals who do not appear to give much importance to the lives of those who are forced to turn to them.

Once they reach European shores, the boats are the responsibility of local Coast Guard commanders, who are tasked with making sure that the migrants make it to shore safely, whether on their own or after having been rescued.

The boats are later confiscated by Italian authorities, who also try to individuate the crew members among those who disembark. Italian legislation mandates harsh sentences for anybody who assist illegal immigration, I assume in an attempt to stem the flow of boats which has even saw Sicilian fishermen who rescued migrants at sea charged by police and temporarily lose their fishing vessels and their means to make a living.

What eventually happens to the migrants who came on these boats is unknown. Some may have reached their final destination, others might be still detained, or might even have been repatriated, possibly to try another time. However, Dear Reader, the boats lining up on the shores of Sicily can only attest to those who made it safely to shore, while the stories of those who weren’t so lucky are lost at the bottom of the Mediterranean, alongside the wrecks of thousands of boats exactly like these.


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