Refugee crisis on Lampedusa
22 June 2003
Jonathan Miller

The growing refugee crisis on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa is threatening the Italian government. Now the right-wing minister, Umberto Bossi, says he will pull out of Silvio Berlusconi's coalition cabinet unless more is done to prevent illegal immigration.

A touch more exotic, maybe, but Lampedusa is the Bournemouth of Italy. A holiday destination of golden-sand beaches where Italians love to come to play under a blistering sun. Or they did. Because something is happening here the authorities don't want the tourists or cameras to see.

But they can't hide it. Each fresh plane-load from the mainland taxis straight past lines of ragged men behind razor wire. The Italians call them "Clandestini" - illegals. No "asylum seeker" euphemisms here.

Lampedusa's detention centre can't cope. Three times as many people as it's designed for sit, sleep, eat, cheek by jowel.

The past three weeks have seen a surge. Lampedusa is the remote southern outpost of Fortress Europe, the focus of the invasion.

As hundreds of happy holidaymakers fly in, hundreds of the unwanted arrivals are flown out, to bigger holding centres on Sicily. And almost as soon as one batch is processed and despatched, another desperate boat-load arrives.

And they just keep coming. Locals are upset. Although this is the southernmost part of Italy, the far-right Northern League, a member of the ruling coalition, is suddenly flavour of the month down here.

Angela Maraventano - Secretary, Northern League:

"We have to choose who is going to survive. We have reached a point on this island where it's either them or us. I am saying this and God can strike me down."

Hoteliers here are getting edgy. Cancellations are rising. The Lampedusa economy is dependent on tourists, and tourists don't seem to like the idea that the cleanest, most alluring waters in the Mediterranean are polluted with the rotting corpses of those that don't make it.

In a harbour full of jaunty yachts, pleasure boats and cruisers, there's a new attraction - a sunken flotilla of immigrant vessels.

Luca Asinari - Holiday Maker:

"The situation is incredible. The government needs to do something about it now. Just seeing these boats gives me a terrible sense of anxiety. An insight into the poverty of these desperate people and their determination to reach the Italian coast. Yesterday, I saw all the refugees lined up. It makes me feel very anxious. It's hard to express what it does to you."

The head of Italy's Northern League caused a storm this week by suggesting that Italian marine patrols should open fire on the incoming immigrant boats as a deterrent. He sent a delegation of right-wing parliamentarians to Lampedusa for a look. They've arranged to visit the detention centre. I tried to pass myself off as a member of the delegation to get inside, but it wasn't to be. No journalist has been allowed inside to have a look at the conditions. There are an awful lot of people in there in bad condition, we've been told by the police.

They didn't have any fresh facts to impart. It turns out they hadn't talked to one immigrant. All they could say is that "we've got to stop them coming".

Angela Maraventano - Secretary, Northern League:

"I don't exactly think we should shoot directly at them. Shoot over their heads, maybe. That could be a good solution to avoid slaughtering them. But we shouldn't have to reach this point."

The government should take action now. Most of these people have fled persecution, poverty and war and have arguably had enough to contend with on their perilous voyages without being shot off.

Italian marine police, naval patrol and ordinary fishermen have been plucking them out of the water for weeks now.

Coastguard commander Matteo De Naco said he and his men have been out day and night. That since the 2nd June, his boat alone had rescued 1,200 clandestine.

More than 2,500 clandestini have come into Lampedusa since the beginning of June alone. 100 more yesterday, and another 100 more at five o'clock this morning.

But the big boat that went down off Tunisia on Friday morning was almost certainly heading here too. Over 200 people are missing, feared drowned, on that.

The Tunisian navy has spent three days scouring the western Mediterranean for survivors of the latest tragedy, but officials now say there is little hope of finding anyone alive.

The 41 survivors, some of whom swam for five hours to shore, said they bailed out water with their bare hands and used bundles of clothes to try to stop water coming in, but the boat capsized.

They'd set off from Libya and have now confirmed they were heading for Italy. They'd come from Egypt, Morocco, Somalia and Liberia, and some had paid more than $2,000 for the trip.

As the Italians prepared to ship out hundreds more clandestini, news a fresh wave of boats have set sail from Tunisia. Most of these immigrants will be deported, some will manage to vanish and perhaps turn up in Germany, France or Britain in a couple of months.


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