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How Lampedusa copes when the migrant ships come in

Most survive the terrible journey. The next steps are less certain, for them and for Europe

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

 Lampedusa

The young hang about in packs or speed around town, two to a scooter. Old women group together on benches around the town square in front of the church. The men continually greet each other as though they haven’t met for years. The likelihood is small. With fewer than 6,000 inhabitants, and as close to Libya as it is to Italy, Lampedusa is the sort of place from which any ambitious young Italian would spend their life trying to escape. Yet every day hundreds and sometimes thousands of people are risking their lives to get here.

‘Please tell people we have nice beaches,’ one islander pleads. And indeed they do, but the fact is that today the island is not famous for tourists (there is only one other guest at my hotel) but for the boatloads of migrants who are trying to make their way towards this most southerly point of Europe. It is a strange fate. Over the centuries this small scrap of land has been populated, depopulated after pirate raids and repopulated again. But what has happened in recent years is new. People have fled northern Africa for years. Lampedusa’s graveyard attests to that. Buried alongside the locals are some of those who set out for the island whose journey ended in the sea. (‘Migrante non identificato. Qui riposa,’ says one of the grave-markers put down by the local government. ‘29 Settembre 2000.’)

But since the ‘Arab Spring’ the trickle of migrants has become a flood. The island buries those it can identify and commemorates those it cannot with a cross and the identity number given on arrival. ‘Where are the other bodies?’ I ask someone. ‘The sea has most’ is the reply. But despite the horrors you hear, most of those who come now — averaging a journey of 24 hours on the vessels the traffickers put out — will survive. They arrive exhausted, traumatised, often having crossed over two continents, some having lost a wife or child on the -journey.

One recent Nigerian arrival sat on the floor weeping, having saved one child but seen another and his wife drown. But still they come, knowing the risks, because for all the stories of sinking boats and deaths on board, most of those who set out will reach Italian waters and there become -European citizens.


Of course, this does not come free. The cost of the crossing alone can be as high as €4,000 a passenger. It depends what they can afford, and positions on the vessel are assigned accordingly. Well-dressed, well-off Syrians will sit on the top deck. They, the Tunisians and others look down on the sub-Saharans who have no money. There is a hierarchy, including a racial hierarchy, among those who set out.

From 2011 onwards, Italy and Europe inarguably struggled to get on top of the new reality. The fall of the dictators meant the crumbling of the old, shady agreements on stopping traffickers. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of people were arriving in Lampedusa every day and night on rickety boats, some of which remain piled up behind the harbour front — a graveyard of wretched vessels, piles of which the island authorities periodically burned. 2011 was a bad year for the island. Arrangements would be made for 500 people to be shipped or flown off just as a thousand more arrived. The migrant reception centre in Lampedusa is designed to hold 350 people. At 500 it is crowded. In 2011 and again in 2013 it was bursting.

This year looks set to be a busy summer. Last week the reception centre held 1,300 people and rescue teams didn’t sleep for two nights. At times like this, local feelings can become a problem.

The Italian government, mindful of this, seems to be getting on top of matters. Migrants are now held on Lampedusa for as short a time as possible before being transferred to Sicily (where many others land) or the mainland. While they are here their legal situation is unclear. Small groups of sub-Saharans boys and men (the group who suffer the worst prejudice from their fellow migrants, are put in the hold and drown first) wander around town. The migrants once made a hole in the fence at the back of the reception centre. Now, apparently, they walk through the front door. Nobody is sure what to do, or whether they can or should be stopped. Migrants with money go shopping on the tiny main street that leads to the harbour. The Syrians buy clothes, others buy alcohol or phonecards.

I meet three young Eritreans in the street. Two have just bought, and are very proud of, ‘I love Lampedusa’ hats. This is unusual. The Eritreans are the group most intent on leaving Italy once here, memories of their former colonial rulers remaining bitter. They will all head north.

Today there are only 55 people in the centre, including 45 minors. Outside the church, eight Eritrean boys are following instructions from an older migrant. They do not blend in. Among the small packs of immigrants who pop up in the town, some make an effort to wave or nod at locals. Others slope through the streets, already seeming resentful. Two — in their twenties — sit in silence on the edge of the harbour, picking at their feet and looking back at the country they embarked from and the sea they managed to cross.

All the time huge naval vessels scour the horizon. When a seaworthy boat is spotted it is escorted into harbour by a helicopter and rescue boats. The one these boys came in on last week (they were in the hold) now sits in the harbour, beside the Italian government boats. But this too is unusual. Most of the vessels heading to the island now are so unseaworthy that the migrants are transferred and brought into harbour on Italian government boats. Save the Children, the UNHCR and others are given a couple of hours’ notice to get down to the port.

‘What happens when they arrive?’ I ask one of the remarkable workers from Save the Children. ‘We tell them they are in Italy and they are safe.’ Apparently at this news the migrants tend to smile. In the countries they flee from the police are the enemy, so they need to be persuaded that the police here work with and for them.

But what happens next? All will claim asylum. Most have legitimate claims to be fleeing unrest and are just looking for ‘peace, freedom and protection’. But about 80 per cent are young men, which suggests that they are coming to Europe to make money that they can then send back. Later, perhaps, they will get the right to bring over their family. If they are refugees then Italy has a duty to give them asylum. But the truth is that there is essentially no way to find out who is who, or what is true. There is not the money, the will or the time. If migrants are refused asylum then they can appeal. And then? Nobody I speak to has heard of any case of someone arriving and being refused the right to remain or being sent back. Once you are in Lampedusa waters you get to stay.

Of course, even those who may be lying about asylum are looking for an infinitely better life than the one they are leaving behind. And today, on Lampedusa, it seems easy to visualise schemes which will distribute this human wave equitably and harmoniously across Europe. But anybody who knows just Italy knows better than this. The better-off exiles aside, most will find themselves sleeping outside the railway station in Milan, loitering in the squares of Florence or selling imitation luxury goods for criminal gangs on the bridges of Venice. They may be more protected, free and safe than they were at home, but their future can hardly be said to be bright. Our continent is probably doing the only thing a Christian civilisation can do in saving these people from the sea. But the international search and rescue mission in the waters of the Mediterranean may prove to be the easiest part.

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