In the Sicilian fishing village of Portopalo there is a small statue of Maria looking down the coast. It is part of a monument which commemorates the 283 people who died in a shipwreck a few miles out at sea. The monument was made by Don Palacino, a priest at the local parish church.

The tragedy occurred on Christmas Eve in 1996. A Lebanese ship from Egypt was illegally trafficking several hundred people, mainly immigrants from India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. The accident happened at night when the immigrants were being transferred from the main ship into small Maltese boats ready to take them illegally to Italy.
In an attempt to get as many passengers as possible onto the one of the boats people were locked into the refrigerator bulk, and in the process of filling the decks with even more people waves pounded the boat which crashed into the main ship and sank under the sea.

5 days later on the 30th December, the main Lebanese ship was found in Napfilion in Greece together with 172 illegal immigrants including 29 survivors from the shipwreck who told of their misfortune when questioned by a Greek magistrate. Although the story was reported by Reuters it was completely ignored by the Italian media except for the newspaper Manifesto.

In 2001 Gianmaria Bellu, a journalist from La Republica published a scandalous article based on a confession made by a fisherman from Portpalo. It stated that many of the fishermen had been pulling up the bodies of dead refugees in their nets, and that they had kept silent about it in an attempt to avoid trouble and to protect their business.
The scandal soon hit the village and the fishing community and Portopalo became the target of media attention all over Europe.

Stefano Boeri, an Italian architect and director of the artist group <Multiplicity> presented a multi media installation about the tragedy in collaboration with the Journalist Gianmaria Bellu at Documenta 11 in Kassel, Germany.

Tana De Zulueta, an Italian Senator, submitted a Parliamentary Initiative on March 2002 about the construction of an inter-religious shrine in memory of the victims and for the Government to retrieve the drowned bodies from the shipwreck. The total estimated cost was 5.000.000 EUR. The proposal was declined by the Parliament because of the controversy which had arisen in Portopalo.

In 2002 Don Palacino made a monument of St. Paul in Portpalo using a small sum of money raised by his parish church community. Since then he has built a series of monuments for victims of the sea and positioned them around the village. In constructing these monuments he made use of the typical plaster and plastic figures of saints commercially produced for catholic churches.
However when he made the monument to commemorate the shipwreck in 1996, he combined the figures with parts of the wreckage, resulting in an ironic combination of catholic figures and the Arabic characters painted on the refugees boats.

Human traffickers still continue to drop people along the Sicilian coast. They use Maghreb shippers to transport immigrants mainly from African countries such as Togo, Sudan, Somalia, Cote d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Eritrea via Egypt or Libya. Many of these boats get picked up or rescued by the Italian Coast Guard, but an unknown number of them are lost at sea. The Asylum seekers which are caught get sent to detention centers. These centres are overcrowded beyond capacity and conditions there are very poor.

Due to the escalating influx of illegal immigrants from Africa in the EU it is almost impossible for them to receive refugee status. Instead they are swiftly given a notice of deportation and forced to leave the detention centers.
But for many of them it is impossible to leave Italy without any money or somewhere to go and they soon fall into illegal activities, picking up jobs on the black market or moving around Europe as paperless illegal immigrants.

To combat this problem the Italian government has recently changed its procedure at the border and started to set up detention centres on the coast of Libya to where the refugees now get sent. The Libyan government has agreed to this in exchange for funds from Italy and the EU.

Text : Takuji Kogo


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