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Lampedusa's burden

Tiny Italian island off Tunisian coast is at the centre of political and humanitarian crisis over immigration.
Last modified: 8 Oct 2013 04:12

Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island near the coast of Tunisia, is at the centre of a full-blown political storm.

The aftermath of last Wednesday's shipwreck, which left hundreds of people dead, including women and young children, has forced another debate on immigration within the European Union. But what is evident is the very real effect that conflicts in the Middle East and on the African continent are having on the movements of hundreds of thousands of people.

Visit Lampedusa's migrant reception centre and you are witness to stories of unimaginable suffering; stories which make people choose to risk everything they can to escape war zones and repression.

The survivors of the shipwreck were barely able to speak. Huddled together in small groups, they appeared haunted, their faces etched with trauma. Workers at the centre were only able to piece together sketchy details of their lives.

Awet, 18, told me how he had made the journey from Tessenei in Eritrea. He came by himself, without his family. After spending a year in Sudan he managed to make his way to Libya, paying thousands of dollars to smugglers along the way.

He took the boat to Lampedusa along with about 500 others. As the boat approached Lampedusa, he told us that the captain lit a fire on board, which quickly got out of control after spilt petrol nearby caught alight. Awet jumped into the water, swimming for five hours until he was eventually rescued by a nearby boat. He lost friends in the shipwreck. After that, he said, he could not remember anymore.

The reception centre where Awet has been staying at houses more than 1,000 people, but it only has the capacity for 250. Families are forced to sleep outside, camping out in makeshift shelters made from foam mattresses and tarpaulin.

Most of those here are Syrian. They come from Idlib, Damascus and Aleppo, among other places. They usually arrive from Libya via Egypt. A group of them who arrived almost two weeks ago spoke about the experience of their journey, a dispiriting saga in which many thought they would die. They said that even though they paid smugglers thousands of dollars for a place on a boat, they had all their belongings stolen from them, phones, money, even the clothes they were wearing. They were hit, threatened at gunpoint. The women, they told me, were very badly treated. Some were raped. They were then forced to walk into the sea until the water went up to their necks. Those carrying their children struggled to hold them above their heads. A small boat then took them through the dark on to a larger vessel. There was a satellite phone and a GPS navigation system. They started on their journey then the captain of the boat abandoned the vessel and they were left to drift in the dark towards Lampedusa. There were more than four hundred of them on board that boat. They had no idea that the journey to Europe would be so perilous.

This year, Lampedusa has been receiving thousands of people who enter the country in this fashion. But the residents here are angry that they are being left alone to deal with this humanitarian crisis. In fact, they cannot cope, they say and that Europe urgently needs to change its immigration policy to allow people to enter the continent safely. Giusy Nicolini, Lampedusa's mayor, has been vocal about the island's sense of abandonment when faced with desperate people who have managed to make the dangerous journey. She has spoken of the need for establishing humanitarian corridors to enable those fleeing war and repression to enter Europe.

Nicolini has also condemned Italy's own immigration law, which automatically penalises anyone entering the country illegally. Under the so-called Bossi-Fini law, if an immigrant cannot prove that they are seeking asylum, they face fines going into the thousands of dollars and are deported back to their country of origin. That, dispiritingly enough, also applies to the survivors of this latest shipwreck. Anyone who is caught helping those entering the country below the radar can also be punished. That includes the fisherman who rescued the dozens of people who were trapped for hours at sea after the boat capsized.

A few days after the tragedy, another two boats filled with migrants heading towards Sicily were intercepted by rescue teams. Overwhelmed by the situation, they requested help from nearby fishing boats, so in effect, asking them to break the law to ensure safe passage to the migrants.

The law has been criticised for being too harsh. Proponents say it is designed to keep criminal foreigners out of Italy. It has also had the effect of scoring populist brownie points with anti-immigration groups.

But it hasn't stopped the deluge of people coming to Lampedusa. What is clear is that the conflicts in Africa and the Middle East have caused a surge in illegal migration, leaving vulnerable people at the mercy of shady, illicit networks.

The calls are growing more urgent for the EU to change its current tactic. It's time, many say, to recognise the human lives in the middle of the immigration debate.