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

Tue, Oct 22, 2013 - Page 9

In the early morning half light, Ajad Miccoli stops his scooter on his way to work and contemplates the scene unfolding across the scruffy, shuttered-up bay. What he sees is both familiar and eerily disturbing. At the quayside, beside a hut advertising seafood treats and boats offering “sunset aperitivi,” a ship with dozens of people on board has docked to unload its exhausted cargo. Altogether there are 210 new arrivals — mostly Syrians, with some Eritreans and Nigerians. Thirty-seven are children. Miraculously, after a perilous journey thought to have begun on the Libyan coast, they are in relatively good condition. One man waves to reporters from the window of a bus sent to drive them away from the port.

“These people have probably known death,” local musician Miccoli says. “Here, maybe, they have a hope.”

“Here” is Lampedusa, the not-quite 20km2 of Italian territory in the Mediterranean that has become known the world over not for hope, but for tragedy. For years, its sparkling waters and postcard-pretty beaches have provided a jarring backdrop for migrant boat landings; the island is conveniently closer to Africa than Europe — about 112.6km from the Tunisian coast and further south than Malta. Yet even for a place well-acquainted with human suffering, the horror brought to its coastline in the past two weeks has been a shock.

“It’s awful,” fisherman Pietro Riso says, watching the first arrival on Tuesday morning last week. (Soon after there was another boat at the dock — this time carrying 90, including four pregnant women.) “These landings have been going on for about 20 years. However, these last disasters have upset the balance. You get up in the morning and you don’t know what to expect.”

DOUBLE TRAGEDY

In the early hours of Oct. 3, near a beach once declared the “world’s best” by users of TripAdvisor, a boat packed with more than 500 Eritrean men, women and children caught fire and capsized. Only 155 people survived, and 364 bodies have since been recovered. It was one of the worst disasters to occur in the Mediterranean in recent years, possibly the worst ever. Absolutes are hard to establish when many victims, in the grip of an illicit people-smuggling trade, are never recovered. As the images of tiny white coffins and vivid testimony from survivors went around the world, tragedy struck again. On the night of Oct. 11, Maltese and Italian rescuers raced to the site of another stricken vessel, this time carrying mostly Syrians fleeing their war-torn country. More than 200 people were saved, but at least 38 died.

The double tragedy has prompted outrage from prime ministers, presidents and the pope, who had chosen Lampedusa for his first papal visit outside Rome in July. However, on the ground, locals are not setting much store by their words. When European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta visited the island, they were greeted with heckles by people who feel abandoned by both Rome and Brussels.

“I hope that they have finally understood something,” Riso says. “This is a political task. We are fisherman and workers, and we do workers’ work. Now the politicians must do their bit. Because we can’t tolerate so many deaths.”

Up and down the main street of Lampedusa’s town center, a pleasant promenade dotted with pavement cafes and tourist shops, the stories of those deaths — and people who survived — are everywhere. There are more mundane realities that follow in the wake of a disaster. Three Eritrean women who have come from Sweden to identify their dead relatives struggle through red tape to replace a missing passport. A couple of Syrians, smoking and drinking black coffee out of plastic cups, wonder how to celebrate Eid al-Adha.

Sitting on a bench, Sium Mulugeta waits for money from a friend to buy new clothes and a telephone. He was on the boat that went down on Oct. 3 with his best friend, Tewelde Bereket. The pair had been at university together in Eritrea, Mulugeta studying chemical engineering, Tewelde applied geography. They had left their home country and been in Ethiopia and Uganda together. And they had the same dream: of reaching Europe and building better lives for themselves and their families.

However, after their boat from Libya ran into trouble, Mulugeta survived and his friend did not.

“He didn’t know how to swim. That was the problem,” Mulugeta says. “When the fire happened, I immediately jumped into the water... I swam for four to five hours. I was near, almost to the coast, when help came.”

Now Mulugeta, like many of the Eritrean survivors and victims’ relatives, is determined to return his friend’s body to his homeland. At the moment, it is among the coffins buried in a cemetery on the mainland of Sicily. Mulugeta knows, because it was up to him to identify the corpse.

“PRODUCING” REFUGEES

Like the majority of the migrants who have arrived in Lampedusa this year — a total of 13,078 so far, according to the Italian Ministry of the Interior — the polite, quietly-spoken 26-year-old comes from a country that, due to internal conflict and repression, is deemed “refugee-producing.” According to figures from the UN High Comissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more people have arrived on Italian shores from Syria and Eritrea this year than any other country. Somalia, another nation in turmoil, is the third-biggest country of provenance. Between them, these nations account for more than 18,000 people. There is clearly no shortage of people for whom the huge risks of the sea crossing outweigh those of staying at home.

“We knew it was very dangerous. Everybody knows,” Mulugeta says. “There are 10-year-old children who know that. But we don’t have any option.”

Almost exactly the same words come from Nisar Salam Aish, a 41-year-old husband and father from Damascus whose family has fled to Jordan and who hopes that, once he has established himself in Europe, he will be able to bring them to join him.

“It was very difficult,” he says of the journey from Zuwarah in Libya — for which he says he paid smugglers US$2,000. “There were about 300 men and women, many children. I can’t believe I am in Italy, alive. But there is not any choice for us.”

Under the still-hot October sun, the Syrian breaks down in tears as he recounts his brother’s fatal shooting earlier this year in the civil war. His wife and two children, aged five and 11, first fled to Daraa, near the border with Jordan. Yet because of the ongoing violence, they left the country altogether. He, meanwhile, decided he could no longer stay in Damascus, so left for Egypt for two months, then Libya for three months — all to get to Lampedusa, where he does not want to be at all.

“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.

CENTER FOR SOLIDARITY

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.

“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.”

XENOPHOBIC REACTION

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.

Nowhere will the political players be watched more closely than from Lampedusa, where the coffins of the Oct. 3 victims have gone, but the memories linger.

“It seems almost impossible that things like this still happen,” Miccoli says, watching the early morning arrivals from the port. “But certainly it’s been happening for years. Now, we hope, the politicians might finally be listening.”