Tue, Oct 22, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Lampedusa — island of hope

Despite the death toll, boatloads of migrants still pour into Lampedusa — where the islanders’ compassionate welcome is at odds with Italy’s harsh immigration laws

By Lizzy Davies  /  The Guardian

“If I stay in Italy I am better off going back to Syria to be under the bombs of Assad,” he says. “We are coming to Europe to change our lives.”

The Syrian is not alone in his reluctance to stay in Italy, although, according to EU rules, he must apply for asylum in his first point of entry into the bloc.

“Most of the [migrants] tell us they moved on to improve their living conditions and they don’t believe that if they stay in Italy this will happen,” says Carlotta Bellini, head of child protection at Save the Children Italy, one of a cluster of non-governmental organizations with a permanent presence at the reception center in Lampedusa.

“They say the [Italian] protection and reception system is not appropriate for their needs. They believe that other EU countries, for example Sweden, can instead guarantee the right to study, the right to work, the right to have an appropriate house,” she says.

Another big issue, she says, is that newly arrived people often want to go where there are already established communities and support networks.

If the boat passengers are unsure about Italy before they arrived in Lampedusa, the facilities on the island are not, at the moment, likely to change their minds. Surrounded by sloping shrubland outside the town, the reception center to which the migrants are taken is currently hugely overcrowded. The numbers fluctuate daily, but on Tuesday last week it had 905 registered migrants, including 142 minors, both with families and without. The center — an entire wing of which lies burned out after a fire several years ago — has space for 250, maximum 300, people.

“The center is in a critical condition. We want people to be transferred [to other centers on the Italian mainland] as soon as possible,” says Maurizio Molina, senior protection associate at UNHCR Italy, and one of the team working at the center in the aftermath of this month’s disasters. “Many people are sleeping rough because in the center there are not enough places.”

Molina admits to feeling tired. He is trying to connect families who were separated in the joint Maltese-Italian rescue mission on Oct. 11.


As a first-level reception center, the Lampedusa facility is not supposed to house people for “more than 48 hours, 76 at the very most” before transferring them to the mainland for more sophisticated asylum screening, Save the Children Italy’s Viviana Valastro says. Yet in recent weeks this has gone out of the window. Non-governmental organization workers say there simply is not enough give in the system — not only in Lampedusa, but in Italy as a whole.

Most worrying for Valastro is the situation of the children.

“This is not an environment for [them],” she says, standing at the gates.

Behind her, as dusk falls, families ready makeshift camps for the night, a Syrian flag can be seen hanging amid the trees, and children play with balls in the very limited space. Sicilian regional authorities have declared a state of emergency on the island, a move that should free up funds for aid workers. Valastro is also pleased that they have at last won permission to let minors out to play in a special child-friendly area for two hours every morning and two hours every afternoon.

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