The crisis of invisible migrants at the gates of Europe

Last weekend, the Italian island of Lampedusa made headlines again for being overrun by migrants. But paradoxically, the crisis was more visible from television news and social networks than from the field.

Lampedusa, a rocky 20 square kilometer outpost closer to North Africa than the rest of Italy, is Europe’s southernmost territory and has long been a focus of the continent’s migration crisis .

  • Abandoned first aid heating blanket – traces of migrant arrivals (Photo: Alvise Armellini)

On July 8, former mayor Giusi Nicolini recalled this reality by posting photos and a video on Twitter and Facebook revealing deplorable living conditions in the fenced camp where migrants are detained upon their arrival on the island.

“There are 2,100 people gathered in the Lampedusa reception center. Even women (4 are pregnant), children, the sick and people in need of care are sleeping on the ground, where they also eat, among the garbage. Beds are less than 200,” Nicolini wrote.

“It could be pictures from #Libya. But no, it’s #Italy,” she added.

His talk struck a chord, prompting reactions from politicians of all stripes, promises from the government to fix the problem, and abundant media coverage. The newspaper La Stampa published a front-page article under the title “Hell of Lampedusa, a journey to the heart of shame”.

La Stampa sent a reporter to the island, but she was unable to see the hotspot with her own eyes, as the heavily guarded facility is off-limits. Like everyone else, she relied on Nicolini’s images to describe what was going on inside.

The former mayor told EUobserver she had obtained the footage – showing people sleeping outside on foam mattresses, surrounded by plastic bottles, rags and other rubbish – from the camp’s “guests”.

“For days I had been in contact with guests, some of whom told me that they had been here for two months. And then I managed to convince them to give me proof of what they were telling me “, she said.

The hotspot is on a dead end country road. On the side of the road you can find shreds of thermal blankets, until you reach a large gate and a “Frontex” sign. Behind, your correspondent spotted a line of migrants, presumably awaiting identification.

“The center has a double fence, there’s a military presence all around, you can’t even get close to see how people are doing because they tell you it’s a military area and you can’t get close. “, said Marta Bernardini, an NGO worker.

Bernardini, coordinator of Mediterranean Hope, a Lampedusa-based project by the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy, explained that there used to be a hole in the fence through which migrants could enter and exit – a behavior tolerated in the pre-Covid times.

With the pandemic, the hole has closed.

Now there is almost no contact between locals and migrants, who are normally rescued at sea, disembarked at a police-controlled wharf, bused to the hotspot, and then bussed back to be embarked in planes or boats towards mainland Sicily.

The exception is when migrant boats are not intercepted by the Italian Coast Guard or Customs Police and make it to the shores of Lampedusa. But migrants are still being arrested and taken to the hotspot.

“With this kind of separation, we hardly see these people, it’s more like news from elsewhere: it is often said that the only migrants that Lampedusans see are on the television bulletins,” Bernardini quipped.

Numbers inside the hotspot rose last week as regular transfers between Lampedusa and mainland Sicily were suspended due to bad sea weather, while arrivals from North Africa continued.

Just under 31,000 migrants by sea have landed in Italy since the start of the year, to July 12, and around 14,000 have come to Lampedusa, according to the Interior Ministry. Arrivals are up from the same period in 2021, when they were around 24,000, but are far from the peaks of 2015-2016.

Lampedusa was a first landing point for maritime migrants bound for Europe for at least three decades, but in 2013 it became notorious for an overnight shipwreck near its shores that killed 368 people.

At the time, it was the deadliest maritime accident in recent European history. It sparked global dismay and promises of “never again”. Since then, more than 24,000 migrants have died or disappeared in the Mediterranean, according to the IOM.

Flavio Di Giacomo, spokesperson for IOM, the UN Migration Agency, calls Lampedusa a “bottleneck” of migration. He says the pressure could be eased if there were more maritime search and rescue operations.

The idea is to intercept people at sea and take them directly to mainland Sicily, avoiding Lampedusa. But Chiara Cardoletti, head of UNHCR in Italy, the UN Refugee Agency, isn’t so sure.

UNHCR has staff on the island, working inside the hotspot.

“You have to be realistic about logistics,” Cardoletti told EUobserver. “It’s easy to say ‘don’t send them to Lampedusa’, if they do it’s because it’s the nearest port, and sometimes that’s vital,” she noted. .

“If people have spent days at sea, burned by the sun or the gasoline from their boat…you don’t want to leave them at sea for many more hours, especially women and children,” he said. she insisted.

Between Saturday and Tuesday, Italian authorities worked around the clock to clear the hotspot, using navy ships, ferries and coastguard units to ferry people to mainland Sicily. In the end, less than 200 people remained in the camp.

It is expected to fill up again, as migrant arrivals tend to peak in July and August.

Meanwhile, for most locals or tourists, the evacuation effort was barely noticeable. The rest of Lampedusa continued its summer: with crowded beaches and restaurants, and streets dotted with quaint old Citroën beach cars.

Life goes on as normal despite the “crisis” (Photo: Alvise Armellini)

Barry F. Howard