“We had to fight for it,” she says.
Surveying the camp from on high, above the hillsides strung with washing lines and studded with groups of potential refugees, Emanuele Billardello, a genial taxi driver born and bred in Lampedusa, says he feels great sadness. He remembers when the island was a place known not for migrant deaths and institutional failures, but cheap and cheerful tourism. Now it is different — even if the tourist industry, decimated in 2011 during the Arab Spring when huge numbers of migrants paralyzed the island, picked up this year due to continued violence in Egypt, the visit of the pope, and — of course — the TripAdvisor fame of — spiaggia dei conigli — literally, “rabbits’ beach.”
Yet, in its own way, Lampedusa is building itself a new identity — one of collective compassion and solidarity with those most marginalized. Two weeks ago, there were even suggestions it should win the Nobel prize for peace. That might be going a bit far, but there is a growing sense that the island is, in its opposition to reactionary immigration laws, leading the way for the rest of the country.
This can, of course, come at a price. Posters in shop and bar windows advertise the counselling services of psychologists from the Order of Malta’s Italian Relief Corps, on hand not only to help victims’ relatives and rescuers, but also the locals themselves.
“This is a welcoming population, maybe the most welcoming there is, because they do not make a distinction between Italians and foreigners,” Giovanni Matera says. “It’s a population which has always been a place of transit. So the migrants are perfectly integrated with the Italians, and for this reason they experience the same pain.”
For many, the person who has come to symbolize the locals’ mixture of political anger and human compassion is the island’s mayor, Giusi Nicolini, of whom Billardello says succinctly: “She’s a woman who is trying to do the right thing.”
It is Nicolini who has led Lampedusa’s fight against Italy’s harsh immigration laws that, among other things, treat illegal immigration as a crime punishable by a hefty fine, dissuade people from helping vessels in trouble for fear of being accused of aiding illegal immigration, and mean prosecutors are expected to place newly arrived migrants — even the survivors of the Oct. 3 disaster — under investigation.
Letta has said he feels ashamed of these laws, brought in when the rightwing, xenophobic Northern League was in government with former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, and would abolish them if it was up to him. Yet problems in his grand coalition — which he shares with the center-right — may make that difficult. In Lampedusa, however, the message from Nicolini is clear.
“The law should be abolished immediately,” she said earlier this month. “Immediately.”
The government in Rome has launched its own “military-humanitarian” mission in the Mediterranean around Lampedusa that will increase sea patrols, while at the same time urging the EU to take a greater share of the burden. NGOs, meanwhile, are keen for the authorities to move beyond crisis management of the arrivals — who have been coming in huge numbers since the early 2000s — and to improve what they say is the creaking and inadequate reception system for asylum-seekers in Italy.