The Italian government’s response to the refugee crisis that has unfolded on the island of Lampedusa this year has looked a lot like an embarrassing shambles.
In the weeks after Ben Ali fell, hundreds of people started arriving from Tunisia’s coastal towns. With the country’s tourism industry devastated by the convulsions of the revolution and with no welfare system in place, many Tunisians had no other option than to jump in a fishing trawler and head to Italy. The Italian border marked by Lampedusa is just 120 kilometres away by sea.
This was not the first time thousands of immigrants had arrived from Tunisia. And indeed, there were riots two years earlier at the detention centre, with Tunisians resisting deportation back to Ben Ali’s dictatorship.
By early February, 27 boats a day were landing on Lampedusa and almost 2700 immigrants were stranded on the island. Italy couldn’t deport them — their migration agreement with Ben Ali was as useless as their gas and petroleum contracts. The mainland Italian regions didn’t want them either. The Northern League, strong in much of northern Italy, blocked any agreement to transport the refugees to the mainland.
The crisis on Lampedusa escalated in mid-February. 5600 people disembarked in just a few days. There are under 4500 Italian residents on the island, which measures just 20 square kilometres and is is dominated by a national park.
Things quickly got messy; there were immigrants sleeping on almost every surface: in the caves, on the dock adjoining the port hub, on a craggy incline that became known as the "Slope of Shame" after asylum seekers built houses out of plastic bags and shat in the open.
Thousands were crammed into the detention centre, built to house a maximum of 750 people. They were sleeping two in a bed, and two under the bed. There were riots to get into the centre — and riots once the Tunisians realised how squalid the centre was inside.
The old port’s hub was torn to pieces by immigrants trying to find a place to sleep. They had only the blankets that were given to them by the islanders, if that. Even now, in late April, Lampedusa is hardly a balmy Mediterranean playground.
Nothing could calm them: interpreters translating from French or Arabic into Italian showed me videos of the absolute panic on the docks (which continued for weeks, even when the immigrants were about to be transferred to the mainland or Sicily), people screaming and clashing with each other and police.
Meanwhile, Italy’s response was painfully slow.
It took weeks before catering was up and running. Private company Bluecoop brought in meals for almost 750 people. That evidently wasn’t enough; the Tunisians were starving and the islanders were forced to bring them food and water. Even though the Lampedusa residents are generally anti-immigration — understandable, given what they’ve been through — I’ve heard from several people that islanders brought bread, water and emptied their cupboards for the asylum seekers.
The stench at the time must have been amazing — Italy provided six portaloos for between six and eight thousand people. The number depends on who you talk to on the island. There were three at the port, three in the detention centre, and the line to use them was hundreds of metres long.
The crisis continued into March, and the inhabitants were getting as desperate as the Tunisians. Many guarded their possessions at home after asylum seekers, looking for places to sleep, began breaking into homes. The residents started to protest, and in late March, they blocked the port with some of the empty refugee boats.
Meanwhile, few of the Tunisians were being taken to the mainland. On some days, it wasn’t possible. On windy days, like those I spent on the island, the possibility of a shipwreck prevented departures.
Yet other days, when the sea was calm, there weren’t more than a "trickle" of immigrants taken to the mainland, according to Ilaria Vecchi from the local Askavusa Social Centre. She told me that at the peak of the crisis, the Centre was filled with hundreds of Tunisians who were allowed to sleep there for one night each.
On 30 March, nearly two months after the boats started arriving, Berlusconi arrived on the island to host an almighty show.
Declaring he’d come to transform anew the craggy, barren island into a "paradise," the PM promised to "empty Lampedusa"; build a golf course, a road, a hospital, a school, set up a casino and buy a house. He said he’d nominated Lampedusa for a Nobel Peace Prize.
While Berlusconi has certainly bought a house on the island, Vecchi doubts anything else will ever eventuate. The golf course idea has already been abandoned, after Berlusconi discovered that the only part of the island that isn’t inhabited is a national park.
Berlusconi next went to Tunis to try to persuade the Tunisians to take back the people who’ve fled the country. He signed an agreement by which Tunisia promised to take back 800 people — bear in mind that around 20,000 Tunisians have arrived in Europe since the revolution — and patrol their shoreline, in exchange for financial concessions. To sweeten the deal, 300 million Euro were promised to the Tunisian interim government: 75 million to finance small businesses in Tunisia, 70 million for a coast watch, 35 million for the construction of a radar.
Since then, deportation flights have left Lampedusa airport almost nightly. Amnesty International has condemned this policy because no attempt has been made to find out whether the Tunisians being deported genuinely fear persecution or not. All the accounts I heard on Lampedusa from Italian interpreters and police assessing the nationality of Tunisians suggest the country is far from being an egalitarian nirvana after the fall of Ben Ali.
The deportations have helped to clear the island in the short term, along with transfers to Sicily, Calabria and the other southern regions of Italy. The six month residence permit granted to the Tunisians upon arrival has allowed them to travel on to France. (Having closed the border for a couple of days last week and stopped a couple of trains with Tunisian migrants at Ventemille, Nicolas Sarkozy quietly dropped most border controls after journalists had left. Reports suggest that many Tunisians from Lampedusa are now in Paris).
Everything I saw on Lampedusa this week suggests the respite on the island is not likely to last. Italy has now deported 400 Tunisians — half the quota — and it will have to consider what to do with new arrivals soon. The bilateral relationship between France and Rome is in strife after Rome issued visas to the Tunisians, allowing them free travel in the Schengen Zone — effectively allowing them to meet up with family or friends in France, the former colonial power. The Italian regions are not likely to prove any more hospitable than they were in the past when it comes to resettling semi-permanently immigrants or refugees.
And the ships will keep coming.
On Easter Sunday, residents told me that another five boats were on their way from Libya. The Tunisian immigration crisis may be over, but the Libyan refugee crisis is just beginning. Italian intelligence predicts 15-20,000 refugees are on their way.
On the island, the clean up of the faeces and rubbish left behind by the last crisis is not complete. In the old port hub, where the floor is covered with food, and the desks with faeces, the new arrivals are likely to be again be processed later this week, according to Illaria Vecchi.
On Lampedusa, the Tunisians, deified by Europeans in January after they kicked out their brutal tyrant, have been demonised and kicked from region to region; country to country just two months later. A new question hangs over stormy Lampedusa today: are refugees from Libya — where we’re told Italy and France are fighting to secure democracy and freedom for the Libyan people — going to be treated any better than their Tunisian cousins?
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