A dream island where people could hate immigrants. But why don't they?
- Lampedusa was a popular holiday destination in Italy, until the boats of migrants arrived.
- Lampedusa doesn't mean the beautiful Turtle beach anymore, but hundreds of drowned migrants by the shore.
- By the summer of 2015 hundreds of migrants were rescued by the Italian forces around the island every day
- The people of the island react differently to this situation that expected
It was obvious in the first minute that something had happened to the island of Lampedusa. In a hotel of an island with palm trees, encircled by turquoise sea, the lucky guests are welcomed with a cocktail, the less fortunate with the leaflets of lame folklore programmes. But the receptionist's smile turning into a grimace surprised me even though I had known the story of the island. “Please write what a beautiful place Lampedusa is,” – said the tanned girl, having heard that I was a journalist. “Tourists are scared to come here, but there is nothing to be afraid of at us.”
The southern Italian island is, indeed, magnificent. The sky stretches over the cactus-covered hills in a way that it is clear even without any knowledge of geography: I am at the end of the world. The feeling of isolation is only enhanced by the sensation when, some hours later, standing at one of the highest points of the island, I catch sight of the sea on both sides.
For two years, however, Lampedusa has not signified the place with one of the most beautiful beaches of the world, with white sand an a little bay filled tight with blinding blue water. Lampedusa has become the synonym of misery, mass death, blindness, and egoism. Since 3 October 2013, the island has reminded people of only one word. The expression that the receptionist was carefully trying to avoid: refugees.
It was on that day a year and a half ago that the trafficking ship crowded with refugees caught fire, some hundred metres away from the island. The crowd was so massive on board that there was no chance of subduing the fire; the panicking migrants rushed to one side of the ship, which made it turn over, and it started to sink. The islanders were rescuing the people together with the coast guards, but despite the several-day-long effort they could only save the life of 155 of them. The death toll was over 363.
The secret history of Lampedusa
But this was only one event in the almost ten-year-long series of tragedies. “Six people are buried
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here from the twenty-five who died inside a ship in 2011,” – points at the bizarre graves my interpreter, Paola Pizzicori, who has lived on the island for 25 years. “The coast guard found the ship from Libya; they rescued 271 people and towed the ship to shore, where it turned out that 25 people had been locked up by the traffickers. They must have suffocated during the trip. We even don't know their names, that is why there are numbers on the graves.”
While strolling in the tiny cemetery of Lampedusa, the island of less than 6000 inhabitants, my interpreter recites in an indifferent voice the information that is common knowledge for the population. “The traffickers lock up the poorest people with nothing to eat or drink in the worst places of the ship. They sometimes even chain them in order not to let them move or, in case of panic, not to gather on one side and turn the ship over.”
“We could only write numbers on these graves too. It is another story from 2011: a ship full of refugees simply crashed into the rock here, right by the island. Fishermen saw the accident and alarmed the people. Telephones rang, everybody ran to the sea to help. We could rescue 528 people, but three of them had jumped off the ship in the wrong direction, towards the open water. The bodies were found only later. They had drowned, though they had already got to their destination, only metres away from the land.”
It is hard to say anything to this, so I only mumble. The heat is overwhelming, the white, unmarked grave is sparkling so bright among the Italian ones profuse in pictures and sculptures that it can perhaps even be seen from the international space station.
“Lampedusa citizens gave up their own burial places for us to be able to bury the casualties. Like them” – points my companion at wooden crosses tottering in the high, scorched grass. We are standing above a mass grave; in its depth lie people about whom we do not even know which country they came from.
A civilised solution with a little problem
Then we suddenly stop, and Paula points at a name-plate placed on a concrete slab as this was the place where the genre of the inscribed grave was invented. “Ester Ada. She was 18 years old when she died on board the ship, on the way to Lampedusa. She was pregnant” – she tells in a matter-of- fact voice. It must be hard to relate the distressing story in any other way. The ship carrying 153 passengers was on the verge of turning over when it was taken over by a Turkish ship, in April, 2009. The happy ending was almost certain: the cargo ship aiming towards Tunisia was about to leave for a nearby land, Malta or Lampedusa, when it turned out that neither the Italian nor the Maltese government was willing to receive the refugees. The ship was delayed for four days at the open sea, while the two governments were playing ping pong with diplomatic memoranda. In the end, Italy gave in.
“152 people survived, but the girl died. Her brother was travelling with her, that's how we know her name.” We finish the story walking on the seaside trail. I am gazing at the turquoise water, and as evasion, I am spinning historical data in my mind.
Hundreds of thousands of people have crossed the Mediterranean Sea on boat since 2009. The Italian coast guard rescued a hundred and thirty thousand people from the sea in 2014. In 2015, 54000 migrants have sailed to Italy from Africa already before June. This girl is not the only one to have suffered this fate. There are only estimations about the number of people who have died at sea, but they think they have managed to find every third victim, the rest of them disappeared somewhere in the Mediterranean. But nothing helps, I feel miserable. The inhabitants of the island must have experienced the same.
Soon after, the mayor organised a funeral for Ada, and hundreds attended it from the village.
The extent of sympathy is in direct ratio to the distance from the tragedy; I am escaping to the realm of instant theories. The validity of my theory still needs examining, but it is certain that the islanders present a specific attitude to the torrent of refugees that leaves a mark on their everyday life. If there was one to rightfully hate the migrants, that would be a citizen of Lampedusa. Yet, the island is not noisy with anti-immigrant campaigns.
The last fisherman
“Six-seven generations ago, farmers were the richest people of the island. There was a lot of fish, it was easy to catch them. But arable land is little on the island, fruits and vegetables were of a great value,” – told an elderly fisherman, who, suitably to a tourism film, was mending a net while we were talking. We were sitting in a house partly carved into the rock, above the port. Not long ago, a large part of the fishers kept their nets and sails in such buildings, and many of them lived in houses built into the side of caves. “Then the ferry started, and everything changed” – recalled Vincenzo Billeci. “Fishers could sell the fish in Sicily too, and business started to flourish. At the same time, agriculture began to wane, because cheaper food products arrived. Ten years ago the world changed again, tourism set in, that will put an end to fishing,” – continued Billeci in a serene voice.
The young don't work at the sea any longer, but in hotels or restaurants. I'm one of the last fishermen.
The man does not continue the story, even though we are before an important chapter: the end of tourism. That is, people will understandably not want to spend their holiday at a place after which the first question of their colleagues will not be where they have got such a nice tan, but how many drowning immigrants they have seen on the beach.
But no new business has come to replace tourism. Lampedusa has simply got into a worse situation due to the humanitarian crisis.
I also have migrants among my friends, but
The fisherman was one of the more critical citizens of the island. “Don't misunderstand me, I have no problem with the migrants, let them come. But there is no need for an international rescue expedition. Since the migrants know that they will be rescued anyway, more and more are coming. I say, let it be as it used to, when they left on their own ships, and those who got here applied for asylum.”
Some days later I received the refutation to the seemingly logical argument from an Italian migration researcher, who works at the University of Amsterdam. Paolo Cuttitta summarised the situation: “The Mare Nostrum mission, in which Italian ships were continually patrolling and rescuing plenty of migrants, ended after one year at the end of 2004. Another operation replaced it, Triton, whose budget is one third of that of Mare Nostrum, and which is not only concerned with rescue. But the lessened intensity of rescuing has only changed the number of deaths. It has become five times higher than last year. (Only in 2015, before April, more than 1600 people died at sea.) The number of the ships going from Libya to Italy has not decreased.”
In the meantime, the fisherman also shared the plainest fears about migrants. While mending the net, he was brooding over the diseases spread by them. From his opinion it would logically follow that he avoids and despises the migrants who happen to get to the island. But the situation is not so simple. “The first migrants arrived already in the 1990s: They were few, I remember, they took shelter in a cave by the shore. I took them food and water, and we helped them find accommodation. They had nowhere to go,” – he explained in the most self-evident way.
Before 2012, there was not a day when we didn't meet migrants at the sea. Once there were eight people tossed about in an inflatable boat. We tried to help, but they couldn't control the boat, they crashed into ours and we feared they would turn over. We called the coast guards, they towed the boat to shore.”
Why do the islanders help, then?
On the basis of the above, Lampedusa could as well be a field of experiment to work out how it is possible to remain humane in the time of trouble, regardless of political views.
“Lampedusa is only a rock in the middle of the sea. Six thousand people on 22 square kilometres. Many have different arguments in connection with the migrants. But people know what it means to be at sea. That they are escaping from death on these little light boats. Even if someone is arguing against them, in trouble they will help anyway.” This was told by the priest of the island, who did not argue for the social exclusion of the refugees, but was arranging for accommodation, care and food for the needy. His words were not empty phrases, because later we heard a similar statement from the mayor.
Lampedusa could have said at any time that we are only a tiny island, how could we cope with such an enormous task. Instead, we took our part in the work, even when the Italian government left us alone with the problem.
(You can read about the peculiar strokes of the Italian government, the plan to turn Lampedusa into a prison island, in this article.)
The words of Giusi Nicolini received emphasis not only by the fact that our interview could only take place at eight o 'clock in the evening, when she had been able to leave from a resident forum, but also by that some years ago, at the time when the migration situation was approaching a climax, she earned fame all over Europe with her courageous advocacy. Actually, it tells a lot about the European conditions that she was nominated for the mayor of the year title because she had proclaimed that immigrants had to be treated equally, like Europeans. Shocking.
Until 2013 the migration situation was solely Lampedusa's problem, the EU wasn't here, Italy wasn't here either, but we did what we could.” The mayor, who did not stop smoking, was not talking at random. The Italian government, with about the same momentum as Viktor Orbán when he wants to build an iron curtain, intended to make Lampedusa a prison island.
In 2009, the Berlusconi government decided that from that moment on, the migrants could not leave the island, they had to stay there until they get deported back to Libya
– explained Paolo Cuttitta, the migration researcher. But the inhabitants revolted, and their protests led to the normalisation of the situation.
They haven't got over the tragedy to date
At last, the 2013 tragedy brought a decisive turn to the life of Lampedusa and those fleeing through the Mediterranean Sea.
It was shocking, I haven't been able to handle rationally what it was like to see 300 coffins in a line. I had never had such a devastating experience
– remembered the island's priest, Mimmo Zammito. “The people taking part in the rescue, or those collecting the bodies, still haven't processed the shock.”
“Lampedusa's people saw the dead and the survivors with their own eyes. That changed many of them for ever,” – explained the inhabitants' transformation Marta Bernardini, an activist of Mediterranean Hope, the protestant aid organisation working on the island.
The tragedy shook all Italy. The government quit its politics of power, and started the Mare Nostrum programme. In the grand mission, three battleships, the fleet of the coast guards, and helicopters patrolled between Libya and Lampedusa, saving a hundred and thirty thousand lives within a year. According to official data, it happened that the ships of Mare Nostrum brought to shore a thousand migrants a day. The country could pursue the programme consuming 9 million euros a month for one year, then, having asked for the EU's support in vain, they stopped it in the beginning of November, 2014.
Although several other countries take part in Triton, the pan-European operation started in order to replace Mare Nostrum, Triton works from a budget that equals with one third of that of Mare Nostrum, while the refugees, as opposed to popular theories, have not stopped seeking for refuge.
“In late May, early June, we hardly had any sleep,” – recalled one of the officers of the coast guard, who asked for anonymity, in the port of Lampedusa.
“The weather was quiet for weeks, and the boats kept coming, one after the other. As soon as we had got back with a group, the order came to return.”
The officer told me that at the time of Mare Nostrum, the coast guard had purchased a set of ships developed specifically for the rescue of the migrants. “They are very fast ships, they can be used on the stormy sea as well, and their sides are made of rounded, inflatable elements, so they don't get damaged when they crash into the migrants' ships at the rescue,” – showed me the officer the ships mooring in line at the port.
Thanks to the patrolling, Lampedusa stopped being a migrant island by the summer of 2015. There are no more scrappy ships and languidly staggering Africans on the coast. The crisis zone has moved one line further off, to the sea, and the island has got back its idyllic image. The idyll is so strong that the journalist rents a room alone in the two-storey apartment building, and on the beaches life is like as if tourism has not been invented.
Only one camp functions on the island, from where the migrants, whose majority is from Africa, and who had been taken there from the sea, are transported to the continent in every few days. But, in a bizarre way, peace causes the greatest disappointment to the migrants. This disillusionment and the vicissitudes of the route from Africa to Lampedusa is described in detail in the second part of our article.
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This happened in Hungary, when hundreds of migrants appeared on the main railway station. They couldn't travel further, so they camp in the middle of the city for weeks.
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