It’s a tiny speck of an island, about 20 square km, the most far-flung spot in Italy, in the midst of the often-turbulent Mediterranean.
With its pristine beaches and turquoise waters, Lampedusa is known as an upmarket tourist paradise.
Today, this rocky outcrop has become synonymous with not only shipwreck, misery, poverty, desperation and death but also human solidarity in the face of overwhelming, unmanageable mass migration, corruption and people trafficking.
Day after day, the migrants come. People fleeing war whether in Mali, Iraq, Syria or Eritrea, or extreme poverty be it in Libya, Nigeria or other oil-rich yet dirt-poor African states.
They arrive in ancient, rusting tubs, transferred from large mother ships to much smaller fishing vessels by the people trafficking mafia to whom they have paid their life savings. And often they end up paying a greater price: their lives. The larger island of Sicily, of which Lampedusa is considered a distant toenail, had declared a state of emergency.
“I was here on October 3, the day the tragedy occurred. I live and re-live those moments constantly. I was out on the port very early and as the bodies piled up, we knew something absolutely indescribably horrific had happened. We have seen people drowned before…Since the 90s some 6,000 migrants trying to make the hazardous crossing from Africa in battered, leaky boats have perished on these shores. But we have never seen anything like this. Even today we are finding bodies or body parts,” Maria Quinto of the Christian charity Sant Egidio, which works for migrants’ rights, told The Hindu. “The Pope’s visit helped the morale of the local population and gave us a message of charity and solidarity, reminded us of our Christian duty,” said Ms. Quinto.
Politicians were quick to lament the deaths of over 300 migrants, mainly from Eritrea and Syria who drowned at sea, some just metres from the shore after their boat capsized. But Lampedusans who feel they have been abandoned by both Italian and European authorities were not impressed.
Jose Manuel Barroso, the head of the EU Commission, was booed when he visited the island with the Italian Interior Minister. Only Pope Francis, seen here as an apostle of love and human dignity, was received with open arms when he chose to visit Lampedusa in July.
“For years people have been dying here. For years we have been crying out for help. But will anyone listen? Under the Bossi-Fini anti-immigration law of 2009, it is a crime to help illegal migrants. We try to help. These people have nothing. They are human like us. But giving them a hand, even providing temporary shelter, food or drink is against the law. What are we doing to ourselves as people?” asks Sandra, a hairdresser who helps out at a local charity. “You see how small the island is. We are a tiny, tightly knit community of 6,000 persons. Everything is so far away and we are so lonely here that we help each other. Sometimes there are more migrants than local inhabitants on the island. They have nothing, no money, no jobs, just the shirt on their backs. How long can we take the pressure?”
Different versions do the rounds of what exactly happened here a fortnight ago. “From what some of the people have told me, as the boat began approaching the shore, the boat’s commander/captain — I do not know how one refers to an illegal vessel carrying such miserable human cargo — decided to set afire a piece of cloth to attract the attention of the coast guards so the boat could be steered ashore. It was in danger of running aground and capsizing otherwise. He apparently burnt his fingers, and dropped the rag which set fire to the greasy deck. Not a major fire, mind you. However, there was panic on board and everyone ran to the other side of the boat which tilted over and capsized, just a couple of hundred metres off the shore,” 45-year-old Salvatore told The Hindu. His refrigerated truck that usually delivers the daily fishing catch to the island’s chic hotels had become a morgue on wheels after the incident.
His brother, Giuseppe, is a fisherman and the tiny family business handles both fishing and the delivery. But Giuseppe has found himself suddenly avoiding certain areas of the Mediterranean around Lampedusa. “The currents are strong here. Very few of these people knew how to swim. There are certain parts of the sea where the shoals of fish are dense. That’s because of the currents. We used to go there. But I now avoid certain places. We find human remains in our nets. Sometimes our nets snag on small fishing vessels that have capsized and lie rusting or rotting in the shallows. I am a Christian. I cannot just throw back the remains into the sea. My religion tells me to give the dead soul a decent burial. But it’s against the law. So I say a prayer and move on. But I never go there now.”
Amer, the reservation clerk at the hotel is from Tunisia and came here a decade ago. “I did not come by boat,” he hastens to explain. “My brother works in Sicily and I worked in another hotel in Palermo, the regional capital, before coming here. I speak Arab and I can translate. The migrants have been placed in special administrative centres and they will be sent from here to other parts of the country. They have all been given asylum,” he said
But for Mohammed and Abdullah, two young Eritrean boys who ran away to escape being drafted into the army, this is a shattered dream. “We thought we were coming to Europe, to freedom. I could not imagine we would be locked up or placed in custody, sleep out in the open on a rain-soaked mattress. We came to find work. There is no work here. Just more misery. At least back home it was our own misery. We have lost everything. And I no longer know what the future holds,” Mohammed says.
Even now Mayor Giusi Niccolini, who sent an angry telegram to Prime Minister Enrico Letta asking him to help her count the bodies, cannot hide her tears. “I lived through horror. Just horror. The bodies just kept on coming. Europe has turned a blind eye to this problem. People are dying at my doorstep. This must be stopped now,” she says.