Lampedusa: Refuge

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Lampedusa: Refuge

Posted from Lampedusa, Sicily, Italy.

Said the banner outside the school library on Lampedusa.

I first saw them at night in Porto Empedocle, disembarking from the ferry that runs every day between the port and Lampedusa, a column of black men and women snaking down the steps inside the boat and across the quay to a waiting bus in the sulpherous glow of port lights. They were quiet. Each carried an identical bag containing their possessions. No one shouted abuse. No one said anything. It was an every day event. The first bus pulled away when it was full. It’s place was taken by a second. Four buses in all filled and drove away, taking the occupants to centers in Trapani, Catania, Palermo, Agrigento.

It was impossible to escape the refugee ‘phenomenon’ as one person called it.

I was surprised because it was almost the only time I heard a racist remark on this journey. Everyone else I had spoken to about the subject had been sympathetic to the situation of refugees, if baffled by the scale of the problem.

‘You won’t see many refugees there,’ Salvatore, a taxi driver, had said some days before, when I told him I was heading for Lampedusa. ‘They spend a couple of days there to check their health and papers and then they’re moved to camps here, at Trapani, or Palermo and Catania. There are three or four camps here.’

‘How do you feel about them?’ I asked.

‘For myself,’ he said,’I’m very sympathetic. I think it’s fine for them to come here, as long as they have papers and they can find jobs. There’s plenty of room in Sicily. But if they don’t have papers, there’s a problem. It’s difficult to keep track of them. And some of them may be ISIS jihadists. That’s a worry.’

When I booked into the hotel in Porto Empedocle, an elderly white haired woman sitting in the reception area with her husband addressed me with no preamble.

‘You English are very clever.’


‘You’re just letting the Syrians in.’

‘Um. Ah. Yes. I -‘

‘We’re getting Africans. Blacks.’ There was a whip of contempt in her tone. Her husband looked visibly embarrassed. I thought about telling her that I would rather them than her, but to my relied the lift doors closed.

I was surprised because it was almost the only time I heard a racist remark on this journey. Everyone else I had spoken to about the subject had been sympathetic to the situation of refugees, if baffled by the scale of the problem.

Italy has reason to understand the forces behind migrating people. It’s had it’s own profound experiences of internal and external emigration. Some of the islands were largely de-populated in the 18th, 19th and 20 th centuries as a result of economic hardship. The 19th century and early 20th century saw hundreds of thousands of Italians head for America, Australia and the UK. The ‘economic miracle’ of northern Italy of the 1960s was built on the muscle of millions of southern Italians moving north for work.

At first sight, Lampedusa is an unlikely Promised Land. It’s just a lump of sandstone stuck out in the middle of the sea, that happens to be closer to Africa than to Europe. It has a permanent population of between 5,000 and 6000. There’s no earth, so there’s practically no food production. Every commodity, except for fish, has to be brought over from Sicily. But It’s been a natural point of arrival for refugees for over twenty years. In recent years the numbers of those rescued and those who’ve died trying to make it to the islands from various points in north Africa has been a constant theme in the news. It would be absurd to go to Lampedusa and not to wonder how the refugee ‘phenomenon’ affects the island. The arrival of 140,000 refugees in 12 months is bound to have an impact. How did the islandc cope, I wondered.

‘Lampedusa is a fishing community,’ explained Damiano Sferlazzo, the Vicesindaco (Deputy Mayor) of Lampdusa. He was a trim, tanned figure in jeans, polo shirt and trainers and a five-day stubble. He didn’t look tremendously Deputy Mayoral to me, but he spoke with the passion and authority of someone who has to deal with the daily practicalities of the situation. ‘If we see someone in trouble on the see, we see if we can help. That’s the way it’s aways been. So If we see a boat full of refugees, our instinct is to see what we can do. It’s just a human response.’

He went to to say that many of the now living on Lamedusa originally came from Tunisia and Libya. ‘They still have relatives there. Of course we want to see what we can do.’

‘But this is a situation that’s been building up for years. It’s not just suddenly happened. When it is 50, 60, 70 people a week, there was no problem. They’d arrive. Some stayed. Others eventually. would leave.But now there are thousands a month. It requires significant organisation to deal with.

Any rescued refugees are taken to an old Army camp on the island that’s designed to hold 5,000 at any one time. It’s managed by a combination of NGOs and local officials. In theory, they’re held there for two to three days for medical checks and to have their papers checked, if they have any. And then they’re sent onto other centers on Sicily via the ferry for Porto Empedocle.

‘The system is fine as long as the flow is controlled,’ said Sferlazzo. ‘But from time it get’s overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people. It’s not just Lampedusa. Kos and other Greek islands have the same problem. And see what happened in Hungary.’

On the whole, he said, the islanders accepted the situation. There were always one or two or complained, but on the whole the rest saw this as part of their humanitarian responsibility. ‘They’re just angry with politicians who don’t seem able to deal with the situation.’ M serious was the effect of media coverage of the situation on the Lampedusan economy.

‘Look,’ he said,’ This is a very small island with very few resources.’ The island’s economy was a fragile one, based on fishing and tourism. Any stories about problems with the refugees, mass drownings, even ones in which Lampedusans played a heroic part in rescuing refugees from sinking boats, tended to have a negative effect on people thinking about a carefree holiday. This may seem selfish, he said, but it’s the reality.’

Clearly a good deal of trouble is taken over segregating the refugees from the main part of the island. Non-European faces were a rare sight during the five days I spent on the island. The people walking up and down the via Roma in the evening, crowding onto the beaches or onto pleasure boats during the day, were middle Italians, very ordinary folk out to forget about La Crisi, political shenanigans, football failures and the grueling business of life. They were there to have a nice time.

When I asked them what they thought of the situation, and they responded with tolerance.

‘If they can work, let them.’

‘I’ve got nothing against them.’

‘They need shelter. Why shouldn’t they come?’

Of course I came across the occasional milder version of the lady in the hotel.

‘Couscous!’ I overheard a man in a restaurant say, ‘I don’t want Taliban food!’. The waitress giggled and explained that couscous had nothing to do with the Taliban. He was having none of it. ‘I’m just a farmer and I don’t want Arab food,’ he insisted.

In general, the calmness and acceptance of responsibility of people I talked to contrasted strongly with the hysteria and outright viciousness of public utterance and press comment in the UK that I had been following online. For months there had been an absolute lack of measured assessment, rational argument or the basic human decency shown by the people of Lampedusa. Yeat’s line about ‘The best lack all conviction. The worst possess a passionate intensity’ seemed peculiarly pertinent.

The moral vacuity of these verbal poses was shown up starkly when the pictures of the policeman carrying the body of the small Syrian boy up the beach in Turkey were published and then exploded on social media. Public response changed the whole tenor of public utterance. Brows were furrowed. Undertakings were made. Moral stances were struck.

And yet the refugee phenomenon should come as no surprise. As Damian Sferlazzo said, this has been building for over twenty years; twenty years in which to recognise what’s going on, to come up with some kind of co-ordinate policy, to create pan-European structures and systems. Simply telling people who have spent all they have and risked their lives to come to Europe simply to go back is not an option. As Sferlazzo pointed out ‘The Berlusconi government tried to turn off the tap, and just sent them back, but that didn’t work at all.’

‘Lampedusa is simply a portal to the rest of Europe,’ he went on. ‘The situation can only be dealt with on a European basis. Of course we should accept those facing political persecution or exploitation in their own countries. That is our humanitarian duty. Perhaps the answer for economic migration is to invest in the countries they come from, to create jobs for them there so they don’t need to come here looking for work.’
He acknowledged that this might be a long way off.

As he said goodbye, he added ‘I know a little bit about dealing with refugees first hand. I helped to rescue some we came across when we were out sailing early this year. We couldn’t just leave them. You can’t.’

Meeting with Il Vicesindaco in his office

Damiano Sferlazzo in jeans and trainers; tanned; stubbled; mobile face & hands. Speaks passionately & fluently.

– Lampedusa is a fishing community
– people feel a natural sympathy with people they find at sea
– he knows how they feel as he helped rescue some last year
– close to Tunisia
– some families originally came from North Africa
– the natural response to finding someone in trouble at sea is a humanitarian one
– how can we help
– Lampedusa is just a small island
– it can’t absorb many refugees
– this is a situation that’s been going on for over 20 years
– in the old days it might be 60 or 70 people a week
– 170,000 came to Italy in 2014

– basic services.

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