Storming Fortress Europe

When fishermen in the Sicilian village of Portopalo di Capo Passero finish unloading their morning's catch, many of them repair to the Bar Caprice up on the main street. One sleepy day last year, one of them brought in a strange catch from his nets, a human head covered with seaweed, and left it behind on the bar. "It was just a joke," says Maria Mei, a neighbor. The shocked barman found it while cleaning up. He took the head outside and stuck it atop a lamppost. Across the street, a butcher was just closing up when he saw the head, and figured it was a warning to him from the mafia. Locals say the butcher has not been around there since. But the head was not a sign from the mafia. It was a sign of the times in Fortress Europe.

The head belonged to one of 283 would-be immigrants who perished in a shipwreck in late 1996. Authorities knew about the wreck but never searched for the missing Sri Lankan Tamils and Liberians. That was true even after fishermen in Portopalo began catching corpses, repeatedly. Only when fisherman Salvatore Lupo, in a crisis of conscience, spoke out publicly this summer was the boat found--not by police, but by a diver from the newspaper La Repubblica. The Rev. Don Calogero Palocino, the local priest who took the head down from the lamppost, complains that Portopalo was unfairly vilified in the Italian press as unfeeling. "This is a global problem," he says.

It is at least a European problem. Refugee groups estimate that at least 6,000 people have died since 1997 trying to get into Europe. United for Intercultural Action, a Dutch group that campaigns for open borders, has documented 2,406 deaths throughout Europe, most since 1996. By comparison, 1,013 Mexican immigrants, out of a much larger influx, have died crossing into the United States in the last four years, according to the U.S. Congress. Along Italy's Adriatic coast, deaths are almost daily occurrences. "The Adriatic is like a cemetery," says Warrant Officer Roberto Gulioto, of Italy's Guardia di Finanza naval section in Otranto, the closest point to Vlore on the Albanian coast, where most of the traffickers embark. "The bottom of the sea out here, you can see a lot of bones down there, hands, body parts, everything."

Across Europe, nations are tightening border security against a rising tide of illegal immigrants. Most now are Afghans and Kurds, Gypsies fleeing Albanian persecution in Kosovo and Africans looking for jobs. Italy and Spain use special coastal radar stations to monitor the boats of traffickers as soon as they leave the far shores of the Adriatic or the Mediterranean. Infrared and heat sensors that can detect humans scan trucks and trains at the borders. Airlines, shipping and trucking companies face heavy fines if they're caught even unwittingly transporting illegal immigrants, so they take ever-stronger measures. In Calais, the French terminus of the rail line under the English Channel is now protected by massive barbed wire fences and high-wattage klieg lights sweeping a denuded terrain in search of illegals. Increasingly, "front-line" countries like Spain and Italy are putting economic migrants straight on the next boat home, no matter how much their labor may be needed. "There's such a contradiction here," says Mustapha El Hor, Moroccan consul-general in Algeciras, a Spanish port that is a major link between Europe and Africa. "They have to shut their borders, for political reasons. But on the other hand, they need workers. The would-be immigrant who gets away is immediately absorbed into the work force. Immediately."

Many of the efforts by European countries to control the trafficking have only raised the body count. Italy imposed stiff jail terms for human trafficking; now traffickers routinely toss people overboard in the surf, rather than risk apprehension on the beach. By making trafficking more dangerous, it has inspired traffickers to raise their prices. Most immigrants now arrive in a Zodiac-type inflatable craft sometimes called a duck boat, which is about six meters long and designed to carry at most half a dozen people. Traffickers stuff duck boats with as many as 60 people, a cargo that now nets them $100,000 per trip. At those prices, the traffickers don't mind losing boats, especially since they're paid in advance. "The Spanish government has to find a solution for this," says Fernando Cordobes of the Spanish Red Cross. "Let's open the borders and let them come in an orderly way, with enough visas to satisfy the needs on both sides."

Immigrants are dying on every European frontier, in every conceivable way. They have frozen to death crossing Kosovo's Mountains of the Damned, drowned trying to wade across the Morava River between Slovakia and the Czech Republic, suffocated in a refrigerator truck crossing the English Channel. In June an immigrant apparently hiding in aircraft landing gear fell from the skies over the United Kingdom and was found dead on the ground; it was the fourth such case in recent years. Four men have been crushed to death in the undercarriage of the high-speed Eurostar train in the channel tunnel so far this year. Barak, a 20-year-old Kurd who recently fled from Turkey via Sarajevo to Rome with 50 other young men stuffed inside the tank of a gasoline truck, says the trip was "OK" until the vent fan was shut off for 20 minutes at a border crossing. "Five minutes more and we all would have been dead," he says. "People were starting to pass out."

Coming bleary-eyed off a night shift in Otranto, Lt. Pietro Spano of the Italian Treasury Police was pleased with the catch: of the boatload of 30 persons they pursued, 10 were captured. The others escaped after the traffickers held up small children, threatening to throw them in the sea if police got closer. Spano has seen enough to know this is not an idle threat. "These incidents happen all the time, people being thrown overboard," Spano says. "Human life has no value to these traffickers, it's like they're selling oranges or something."

Many of the immigrants have loved ones already waiting for them on the European side. In Algeciras, when immigrants don't show up at the appointed time, the phone starts ringing at the Tanatorio Los Barrios, a morgue and funeral home. It is run by a Spaniard, Martin Zamorra Sanchez, who has learned to dress and prepare bodies according to Muslim rites, and regularly transports those who drown on the crossing back to Morocco for burial. Hardly a week goes by without a couple of cases. Some of the new arrivals even carry Zamorra's mobile-phone number, just in case. "I've had calls from someone with a cell phone on a patera [duck boat] saying, 'We're sinking, can you help us?' " says Zamorra. "It's so tragic. Every one of these pateras is a boatful of stories."

They all head for Europe looking for work, or just hope. In Algeciras, those who don't make it are buried in a crypt with a judicial case number and the word desconocido, or "unknown." In the Otranto and Lecce cemeteries of southern Italy, they get a single number and the word ignoto, "not known." The Otranto cemetery has a special crypt for partial remains, with skulls and other bones neatly stacked by type. In his morgue refrigerator, Zamorra has the body of a man burned to death by soaking for hours in a toxic mix of salt water and gasoline, a horrible but not uncommon fate in overloaded duck boats. "Who is he? Who knows? What did he hope for?" the mortician wonders, as he closes the walk-in refrigerator door. "What were his dreams? Look what has become of them."

The Chinese have a saying: one way to be born, a thousand ways to die. The world's huddled masses are finding more and more of those ways as Fortress Europe raises its barricades. "We can't go on like this," says Rupert Colville of the U.N. High Commission on Refugees. "Building walls higher and higher only to find people tunneling under them and dying in the process." Colville says many countries in Europe are starting to recognize that they'll have to find a way to accommodate more immigrants if they want to stop the deadly trafficking in them. Either way, they end up with the same number of new arrivals--but if they're legal, they'll be much more likely to contribute taxes. And they won't have to pay with their lives for a chance at a job.

Join the Discussion