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Bits of boats at Cala Galera
Remains of boat at Cala Galera

The darker side of paradise

300 migrants drowned off the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa last week. They won't be the last

This summer, everyday life in Lampedusa resembled the everyday life of most small touristic islands in the Mediterranean. From May to October, tourists spread their towels over every available centimetre of sand on the Spaggia dei Conigli (voted Best Beach of 2013 by TripAdvisor). Fishermen brought families and retired couples on tours of the island, cooking their guests cous-cous with grouper, a Lampedusan speciality. In the evenings everyone shuffles up and down Via Roma, the main street of the town, which is lined by souvenir shops selling sponges, shells and turtle-inspired memorabilia.

But everyday life in Lampedusa differs radically from everyday life in most small touristic islands in the Mediterranean. Lampedusa marks Italy’s, and so the European Union’s, southern frontier. And at the outpost of Fortress Europe the consequences of laws and decisions made higher up are impossible to ignore.

Una mattanza: a massacre, as the priest of Lampedusa called it

Last week, over 300 people drowned just under one kilometre off Spiaggia dei Conigli. The first to help wasn’t the coast guard: it was a group of eight friends who on a leisurely night-time boat ride heard the screams of hundreds of people that had been floating in the water for hours. They managed to rescue 47 people. The boat was carrying over 500. “Una mattanza”: a massacre, as the priest of Lampedusa, Padre Stefano, called it. Today, another boat has capsized between Tunisia and Italy, leaving 200 people stranded in the sea. 

Walking down Via Roma one September evening I met two young Eritrean men who had arrived ten days earlier from Libya. They told me that they were lucky: their journey at sea took only a day. In order to get out to town that evening, they had escaped through a hole in the fence of the reception centre of Contrada Imbriacola, where all migrants are brought on arrival to Lampedusa. Like cats, they said.

In July an IOM (International Organisation for Migration) employee who worked in the centre as a legal aide told me that while people are not officially meant to leave the centre, the police turn a blind eye because they know it would provoke a revolt to forcibly bring people back to the overcrowded centre- and that it would in turn cause a scene that might not be appreciated by tourists…

In September, there were around 1500 people staying in the centre, six times as many as its 250-person capacity. Men, women and children were forced to sleep outside. People were also being kept on Lampedusa much longer than the 48-hour time frame that is theoretically necessary for turnover to be possible on the island. This is not news for Lampedusa: local activists from the migrant rights group Askavusa have reported on the degrading circumstances at the reception centre for years.

Though migrants were somewhat tolerated around town this summer, that didn't mean that information on people dying at sea circulated any freer on the island. If I hadn't met that IOM worker on the 28th of July, I would not have known that 31 people had drowned close to shore that very day.

When walking along the port, after passing rows of fishing boats converted into tour-of-the-island boats, Coast Guard and Guardia di Finanza boats start filing by. This summer there were also Spanish Guardia Civil boats, sent to Lampedusa as part of the EU’s joint efforts to militarize the frontier.

It is also not unusual to find what’s left of shipwrecks ­– bits of wood, shoes, plastic objects – brought in by the winds onto the coast behind the airport

It’s within this context that the tragic incidents of the last few weeks occur, and it is within this context that it must be read: not as an accident or as an exception, but as part of a long line of events directly caused by Italian and European immigration policy.

A heavy police presence at the port, and on the island in general, has become normal for Lampedusa. Locals know that when an empty ‘Lampedusa Accoglienza’ bus drives by, it means that the coast guard boats are coming back with migrants on board, or are escorting in a migrant boat. It is also not unusual to find what’s left of shipwrecks ­– bits of wood, shoes, plastic objects – brought in by the ‘libeccio’ and ‘scirocco’ winds onto the coast behind the airport.

The cemetery of boats (an open-air dump for vessels that arrive from Tunisia and Libya) and the numerous nameless graves dotted around the island’s cemetery are further, indelible reminders of one thing: in Lampedusa, boats on their way to Europe have been arriving and sinking for the past 20 years.