An island people

Europe has much to learn from the people of Lampedusa. They have received thousands of immigrants fleeing North Africa with compassion and courage. But the tourist island now faces a massive slump in revenues and an uncertain future.
Nicholas Hirst
24 June 2011

The fortunes of Lampedusa have always been determined by the sea.  The island, which lies South of Tunis and is closer to Tunisia than to Italy, used to be a tight community of fishermen with a reputation for being tough but dignified. Now regular boats from Italy unload the fresh food, water and tourists upon which the 5,000 islanders have come to depend, whilst regular boats from Africa bring a steady stream of immigrants whose numbers this year have soared to over 40,000 since January.  With the local accommodation facilities overflowing, many of these sought shelter in caves, on beaches and in the local town.

“They were knocking at our doors, asking if they could wash or get some money for food. We felt very sorry for them,” says Mariangela Greco, a local entrepreneur who is visibly affected by her memories of the mass-arrivals of February and March.  “Yes, some people were scared, but there was always a lot compassion.” After 5,200 immigrants – known as clandestini in Italy – arrived over a period of two days at the start of February, Mariangela, like many others on the island, was quick to grasp the scale of the crisis occurring on Lampedusa. 

As the local authorities were overwhelmed, the locals were galvanized into action. Fishermen distributed their catch and Italian mothers set about preparing literally hundreds of meals.  Whilst some families distributed blankets and clothes to those sleeping rough, others invited clandestini into their own homes: “We could fit 7 to 8 people to sleep in our offices,” says Ilaria Vecchi, who runs an association working in the local community,  “There were no problems at all. They would clean up and drop off the keys if we were out… They were polite and grateful.  Some spoke Italian and many spoke English.”

Reports in the press have repeatedly portrayed Italy as being increasingly hostile towards immigrants.  But the islanders’ stories paint another picture, one of instinctive succour and ready compassion, with island-residents, for example, pulling migrants from the water when a boat of 500 migrants capsized on 8 May. Many locals in this periphery border-island have maintained contact with migrants that they met during the emergency.  Indeed, some have gone so far as to specifically invite migrants back to the island.  Five are thought to have returned from the mainland, having obtained temporary residence permits, and are now working on the island.

One such man, a young Tunisian in his mid-twenties, who wished to remain anonymous, is now working as a waiter in a busy family restaurant.  “The people have been very nice to me, they’ve never said a bad word,” he says, smiling, in jumbled French and Italian.  Having originally arrived in February, he is very grateful for the work, but says whether he stays in Lampedusa “will depend on how I like the job.”

As Christians, says Stefano Nicasto, the parish priest for Lampedusa, the islanders were bound to act in this way, “We did as much as possible to help these people who were seeking liberty and escaping violence and to protect their dignity as humans. The people of Lampedusa showed great solidarity.” 

When the Pope received a delegation from Lampedusa at the end of April, he urged them on in their “solidarity towards our migrant brothers.”  This was around the same time that France and Denmark were pushing for the Schengen Agreement to be revamped in order to deal with the arrival of tens of thousands of migrants in Italy – described by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as a “human tsunami”.

The Maldives of the Med

Lampedusa is famous throughout Italy as having spectacular diving and beaches to rival those of the Maldives.  But with the profitability of local fishing in freefall, the island’s economy is massively dependent on the 100,000 tourists who flock to the island’s beaches; the season normally starts in Easter and is in full flow by May. This year, however, the only clients in the hotels and restaurants are surly soldiers and sun-glassed carabinieri

“For local businesses the situation has been catastrophic,” says Antonio Martello, proprietor of one of Lampedusa’s oldest hotels.  “No one wants to come on holiday to see clandestini.  Bookings are down 90% on last year and things are unlikely to get better.  Whereas last year there were 30 flights a week to the island, this year only six per week are scheduled.”

When Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi first arrived in Lampedusa at the end of March he vowed to empty the island of migrants and prop up the local economy.  He assured the residents that they would no longer be pushed about by Rome since he himself had that very day – so he claimed – bought a house in Lampedusa.  In a final flourish, he declared that he would nominate the island for a Nobel Peace Prize. His promise that the migrants would be more efficiently dealt with has largely been borne out and just in time for the summer season.  A ferry now sits permanently off the island ready to take new arrivals to the mainland, and no clandestini are to be seen in the town.  But tourists remain wary and locals complain of exaggerated reports in the media.

“The media have been and are talking about Lampedusa in a very unprofessional way,” says Ilaria Vecchi. “They give the impression of an island that is permanently under siege with immigrants everywhere and the locals suffering.” As a result, the locals are almost unanimously resigned to this season being a disaster.

Nor have Berlusconi’s promises of help for the island’s economy materialised.  “No, there’s been next to no help from the government,” laughs Antonio Martello.  “The only help we received were some TV advertising spots, but these were screened just after the news, which always had footage of new migrants arriving in Lampedusa.”  As for Berlusconi’s new home in Lampedusa, the locals remain sceptical.  “The second time he was in Lampedusa, he showed us a purchase contract,” related Ilaria Vecchi.  “But then he said that there were problems because the house was built on public property.” Berlusconi maintains that he is “publicly committed to becoming a Lampedusan.”

As a consequence of the migration and of its mismanagement, many local businesses are facing the prospect of massive losses this year.  Yet whilst the anger on the island is palpable, it never seems to be targeted at the migrants. Rather, Lampedusa feels that it has been hung out to dry by the government in Rome and by Europe.

“This was foreseeable, but the state wasn’t at all prepared,” complains Mariangela Greco. “They just let things get worse and worse.” Father Nicasto agrees: “Rome and Brussels make a lot of promises, but nothing concrete is ever done.  They are paid to sort out situations like this and what are they doing?  In these circumstances, Lampedusa represents Europe.  If the island is abandoned, it is all of Europe that loses out.”

Berlusconi’s promises of building a golf course or a casino on the island leave most islanders cold.  They argue that tax breaks and infrastructure would be more appropriate and doing something about the chronic lack of clinics and schools on the island which force the young and the elderly alike onto the mainland.

“But Lampedusa has never been helped by anyone.  Anything that works on the island is by our private initiative,” observes Antonio Martello.  And the future?  “Everything depends on the situation in north Africa.  We will live in this uncertainty for quite some time more,” he adds, gazing out at the sea. 

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