Another Cruel Island


The images are uncannily familiar to anyone who’s followed Australian politics for the past decade. Rotting boats with hundreds of desperate, hungry and panicking asylum seekers have been docking at the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa virtually every day since the start of the Arab Spring in January. Over 22,000 have arrived over the last two months. 

The island, located just over 300 kilometres from the Tunisian capital Tunis, is accessible to the European press, who’ve been recounting dramatic stories for weeks now: of sinking ships with children aboard; of an island where the number of arrivals far exceeds the shelter available; of food and water shortages endured by the Tunisians, Libyans, Eritreans and Somalians on the island.

Yesterday was — sadly — a typically extraordinary day on the island and in the waters around it. Jesuit advocates working on the nearby Mediterranean island nation Malta have confirmed Libyan government claims that 70 Eritrean refugees have died on the way to Italy, reports the Italian state broadcaster RAI. Father Joseph Cassar claims to have learnt the news from other Eritreans in Libya. The identity of the asylum seekers hadn’t been known until now, because the bodies were buried on Thursday, the same day they washed ashore.

Meanwhile, despite an evacuation to the mainland by the Italian interior ministry of about three quarters of the 6000 refugees who had been on the island before the weekend, the boats from North Africa continue to arrive, reports Milan’s Corriere della Serra — over 300 disembarked today.

The paper’s correspondent on Lampedusa reports the problems that beset the Italian government’s evacuation. After 20 young people — among more than 300 minors on the island, of whom 100 still cannot be located — were evacuated from Caritas’ accomodation on the island, the remaining Tunisian asylum seekers in the facility rioted. Enraged at being left behind after having spent more than two weeks in the crisis accommodation, they lit mattresses, claims the Corriere. The paper quotes one of the protestors: "we’ve come here to win our liberty, but they keep us locked up … and tell us every day that we’ll be able to leave tomorrow".

Other refugees on the island are living in even tougher conditions than the young people in crisis accommodation, reports Spain’s El Pais. Many have spent weeks sleeping in the open air in ad-hoc camps around the ports, or on a steep embankment nicknamed the "Slope of Shame" where "human faeces are piling up next to precarious houses made from sheets of plastic". In its dispatch, El Pais relays a series of accusations of neglect and maltreatment made by asylum seekers against the Italian government. "The policy of the Italian government has been to treat us like dogs, it hasn’t been any different to the Tunisian policy," says Nizer, a 25-year-old Tunisian. "We can’t shower, sleep in the street, don’t have clothes. We’re terrified. The only thing they’ve given us is a pair of shoes. The food is horrible, and they’ve put tranquilisers in it, so we spend the day half asleep".

Asylum seekers landing on Lampedusa are now being taken to the southern Italian town of Manduria, where the government has hastily erected a tent city that will serve as a processing centre for the claimants. Again, reports from the site suggest the facilities erected by the Italian government are inadequate, and won’t be able to cope with the numbers of asylum seekers to be housed onsite.

A correspondent of Il Manifesto in the town says 3000 refugees have been taken to the camp — which is designed to accommodate 600. Describing the atmosphere as "surreal," the paper interviews a policemen at the camp, who says the wall around the tent city is only 1.8 metres high, and that he expects the asylum seekers to escape. The official’s expectation was realised over the weekend when two mass breakouts occurred, says Rome’s La Repubblica. Attempting to reach the town’s railway station, the majority of the escapees were surrounded, but refused to return to the camp.

The cause of the breakout was apparently distress at bureaucratic delays. Most seekers couldn’t easily obtain police permits enabling them to leave during the day, because the Italian foreign office had put a stop to the granting of such permits three days earlier, reports La Repubblica. La Voce di Manduria, the local paper in the town, adds that there are also complaints that food is lacking, the toilets provided are dirty, and there’s no hot water on tap at the camp.

Whereas in Italy, the press has mainly reported on conditions in the refugee camps on the mainland and Lampedusa, elsewhere in Europe, there’s been more reflection on Italian government’s management of the refugee crisis. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s visit to the island on Wednesday, during which he announced the transport of asylum seekers to the mainland would begin shortly, was nothing more than a "grotesque performance" says the Berliner Tageszeitung. During his speech, Berlusconi ramped up the vaudeville, announcing that he’d nominated Lampedusa for a Nobel Peace Prize, and that he’d bought a house on the island.

The Italian prime minister is to travel to Tunisia today, to try to convince the Tunisian government to do more to prevent more boats leaving for Italy, reports France’s Le Figaro. Yet all indications point to another Berlusconi song and dance performance: il Caviliere says he wants the "non elected and weak" Tunisian government to respect the immigration treaties signed with Italy, and do more to help Italy repatriate some of the "human tsunami" who have arrived on Lampedusa since January.

Whether Tunisia actually has a repatriation treaty with Europe or not is unclear. Many in Tunis deny that one exists. In a commentary excoriating "Fortress Europe" for its "persecution" of Tunisians, La Presse (the Francophone paper in the north African nation), argues Berlusconi’s visit will be an attempt to impress "the law of the strong" on the weak and "silent" Tunisian government, who can’t or won’t defend its citizens.

The paper goes on to compare the treatment of Tunisians in Europe with that of Libyans in Tunisia. Whereas Tunisians in Italy are held in conditions "inhuman and insanitary, comparable with those enjoyed by galley slaves in centuries long gone," La Presse says that Tunisia has received 200,000 Libyan refugees since the start of the revolt in the neighbouring country. "They have been welcomed by every class … and have been fed and washed as if they were in their own country".

Arguing that Tunisia’s housing of refugees reflects an "imperative to solidarity and hospitality" that the country has never shirked, the paper concludes with an rejoinder that should shame every European: "Unfortunately, others pursue and persecute Tunisians, readying their hounds to sniff out Tunisians … based on grimaces of fear, of sustained xenophobia, and of duly assumed exclusion. And they also do this according to tradition. Alas!"

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