Seaborne immigrant invasion racks holiday island of Lampedusa
From The Times
August 9, 2008
About 15,000 migrants have arrived so far, double last years figure. The Mayor of Lampedusa has called for EU help as tourism is hit and water, sanitation, waste and sewage come under strain
Richard Owen in Lampedusa
As you arrive by air at Lampedusa, a tiny flat Italian island just off the coast of North Africa, you can see the white sandy beaches and rocky coves that attract swimmers and snorkellers and rare breeds of turtle. It is Europe's southernmost outpost a hot, arid land of palm trees, cacti and coral dubbed the European Tropics.
Through the heat haze you can also spot the Italian coastguard vessels slicing though the deep blue waters to meet and bring in boatloads of exhausted and dehydrated would-be immigrants who set off from North Africa in overcrowded, ramshackle boats to reach the Promised Land.
Many never make it: last week Italian fishermen reported that seven migrants died when their rubber dinghy capsized in Libyan waters, with Lampedusa still far over the horizon. Two women, one pregnant, died when their boat sank 80 miles south of Malta. It emerged recently that 140 migrants died in June in Libyan waters. Their bodies are still being recovered.
This cannot go on, Bernardino De Rubeis, the Mayor of Lampedusa, said as he watched another boatload of 30 arrive at the quayside. We are on our knees at the limit. We have a centre where these people are cared for medically, and where we try to identify them. But it is only designed to hold 850 at the most, and at the moment it often has double that number.
At about 15,000, the number of arrivals so far this year is double the figure for last year. Nearly 400 have died at sea, compared with 500 for the whole of 2007. The centre-right Government of Silvio Berlusconi has declared an immigration emergency, with extra powers for police to combat street crime and tougher penalties including prison as well as deportation for illegal immigrants.
But governments of all hues, Mr De Rubeis said, have left Lampedusa to bear the brunt of the annual assault from North Africa. Lampedusa is administratively part of Sicily. But Sicily is 250km (155 miles) away, while Tunisia is just over 100km away.
Last month the mayor inaugurated a sculpture on Lampedusa's headland just beyond the port by the Italian artist Mimmo Paladino. Entitled The Gateway of Europe, it is dedicated to the thousands who have died trying to reach the island and is decorated with the migrants' poignantly meagre belongings shoes, food bowls and hats.
The migrants pay smugglers up to 2,000 (1,500) a head for their passage across the sea. It is nothing less than a criminal trade in human flesh, said Mr De Rubeis. Unfortunately the August weather at this time is ideal for it calm seas.
Behind us the latest arrivals from the Horn of Africa were being given portside medical checks by staff from the aid agency Mdecins Sans Frontires (MSF), and taken by bus to the euphemistically named Welcome Centre, a well-guarded former military camp about a mile away.
Their vessel a dilapidated wooden fishing boat with a torn awning as defence against the scorching sun joined three others at the quayside full of discarded lifejackets and empty water canisters. According to volunteers at the detention camp, 11 per cent of the migrants are women and 5 per cent children. We ensure that each migrant at least has a mattress, medical attention and food and water, Cono Galipo, who runs the charity, said. According to the mayor: When the centre is at bursting point it puts an extra strain on the island's infrastructure – water, transport, sanitation, waste, sewage.
A tall, bespectacled, mild-mannered accountant, Mr De Rubeis has found himself catapulted into a crisis of national, if not international, proportions. I appeal to the European Union for help, he said. After all, this is a European problem.
On the same island, but a world away, is the Cupola Bianca, a hotel complex with a palm-fringed pool. Giuseppe Cappello, who runs the complex, is one of many who say that the immigration problem is sapping Lampedusa's lifeblood: tourism. The number of tourists is down by 30 per cent this year. It hardly helps if all people see on television is yet more illegal immigrants arriving. It gives a false impression, he said.
Claudio Baglioni, an Italian pop star, stages a free annual music and art festival on the island to promote multi-ethnic understanding. The problem is, the authorities treat the symptoms of the disease, not its origins, he said.
On Lampedusa they put the blame squarely on one man: Colonel Gaddafi of Libya, who they say has repeatedly reneged on promises to halt the exodus of migrants from the 1,700km Libyan coastline, despite an accord last December on joint maritime patrols. Italy and Libya, a former Italian colony, have spent years negotiating a treaty, including compensation for the colonial occupation.
A key component is the construction of a 3 billion coastal motorway through Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, funding of which was promised by Mr Berlusconi on a visit to Tripoli in 2004. He has vowed to conclude a deal with Colonel Gaddafi by the end of the summer.
Mr De Rubeis and his outspoken deputy, Angela Maraventano, are sceptical. It's all words, Ms Maraventano, a member of the anti-immigrant Northern League, said as she started a symbolic hunger strike on a fishing boat in the port. Gaddafi is blackmailing us by sending these poor people over. I call on him to stop this massacre.
Antonio Virgilio, MSF's head of mission in Italy, said: Increased controls and surveillance are not deterring people from trying to reach Europe. These people are running away from war, violence, hunger and extreme hardship. Their only chance is to take that perilous journey. So they take more risks now – they travel in smaller and more precarious boats, even rubber dinghies, often for up to eight days.
Many islanders are ambivalent about the coastguards and fishermen who rescue the migrants, and the humanitarian agencies that care for them, saying that they merely encourage the influx. But Licia Pera, an MSF nurse with four years' experience on Lampedusa, said: It is our human duty to save lives. Many of these people have escaped from war zones, and some of the women are raped during their terrible journey across the desert to the Libyan coast.
Many migrants do not even realise Lampedusa is an island, she said. Last week 18 migrants who had evaded the coastguards landed on a beach and asked a startled woman sunbather how to get to the non-existent railway station.
According to Italian Red Cross officials, migrants fresh off the boat have reported that thousands more are preparing for the crossing. The air above Lampedusa is filled with the roar of aircraft taking migrants to camps in Sicily or the mainland to ease the pressure on the island. After further checks, the Italian authorities decide whether to grant them asylum or deport them.
Some migrants apparently mutilate their fingertips, in the belief that if they cannot be fingerprinted they will not be deported.
The quay, the mayor told me, is now to become a military zone. The emergency is becoming permanent.
A HISTORY IN THE SEA
Lampedusa has a population of 6,000 but it swells to 33,000 in the summer
The island was a maritime base for the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Arabs
The first Prince of Lampedusa and Linosa was Giulio Tomasi an ancestor of the writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of The Leopard who received the title from Charles II of Spain in 1630
After Italian unification in 1870 the island was used as a penal colony
During the Second World War it was captured by British forces as part of the Allied invasion of Sicily. There is a small US station on the west coast of the island
In 1986 Libya fired two Scuds at the US installation in retaliation for the American bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi. The missiles landed in the sea
Lampedusa is connected by ferry to Porto Empedocle in Sicily, but in the winter can be cut off for days
Even in summer there are often no newspapers at the two newsagents in Lampedusa because they fail to arrive from Rome or Palermo by air
The Isola dei Conigli (Island of Rabbits), off the south coast of Lampedusa, is one of the last remaining egg-laying sites in the Mediterranean for the loggerhead sea turtle. Other species on the islands coastline include manta rays and dolphins.
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