Island Paradise Stands Up For Europe's Immigrants

Each year thousands of tourists flock to the tiny island of Lampedusa off the coast of Sicily. They come for the pristine beaches, the turquoise waters and the dramatic cliffs. What the visitors usually don't see is the boat graveyard. At the center of the island's 24 square kilometers, far from the resorts, wrecked ships hulls are stacked high next to a chain link fence, along with rotting foam mattresses. Each vessel is marked with a date and initials indicating who rescued its passengers, and where they were ultimately sent.

For years refugees have been making the trip by boat to Lampedusa from Libya and other northern African nations with the goal of making a better life in Europe. In recent months, driven by wars, hunger and economic crisis, their numbers have been increasing. Since last February, 36,000 boat people—a 75 percent increase over the year before—landed on this tiny enclave. Last week more than 1,800 refugees were packed into a government building originally built to house a maximum of 800. The situation has gotten so bad that locals fear for the island's tourist trade. How to deal with these huddled masses has become Italy's latest political drama, pitting infuriated residents against the Italian government.

Rome wants to get tough on the immigrants. Interior minister Roberto Maroni has proposed converting an old military base on the island into a second detention center where those who do not qualify for political asylum will be repatriated directly from the island. At the same time, he is pushing a security plan that will make illegal immigration a crime and extend the detention time for those seeking asylum from 60 days to 18 months.

The island's 6,000 residents have objected strenuously to the proposal, however. Lampedusa Mayor Bernardino De Rubeis says the move is inhumane because it doesn't include any plans to modernize the new building to accommodate the immigrants. "It is unacceptable," he says. "This plan will turn Lampedusa into a Mediterranean Alcatraz." That sentiment is echoed across the island, where last week residents took to the streets in protest. The situation teetered on the edge of chaos on Jan. 24 when nearly 1,000 migrants broke free from the detention center to demonstrate with the locals. After marching arm-in-arm in protest, locals fed the escaped refugees and then escorted them back to the detention center.

In a country where the government is often accused of racism toward almost all immigrants, Lampedusians are astonishingly accepting. They see first hand the desperation of those escaping war, famine and economic hardship. Helping refugees has become a part of the local culture. Pietro Russo, the captain of a commercial fishing boat who won a national medal for heroically rescuing several boat refugees, remembers the names of many people he has helped—including the faces of two young women who died at sea in front of him and his nine-man crew two years ago. "They are willing to risk everything, even their lives, to get here," he says. "Dying at sea is better than what they are escaping from. It is really a voyage of hope for these people."

Refugees are usually either rescued by the coast guard, hauled in by fishing boats like Russo's, or simply crash into the rocky shore. Shoes, jeans, jackets and food containers with Arabic writing are scattered all along the shore next to Lampedusa's main port. After landing, refugees receive medical treatment, warm clothing and food and are taken by minibus to the island's reception center for identification. They sleep 10 to 15 in a room in bunk beds. There are minimal facilities for hygiene, few showers and no play areas for the children. Many who leave the center claim that sedatives are put in their food to keep them calm. Others tell unthinkable stories of abuse and rape. Those who apply for asylum are moved to open centers in Sicily or mainland Italy within 60 days. Those with whom Italy has repatriation agreements are sent back home, generally via a mainland center.

Many Lampedusians worry that detaining refugees for 18 months, as the government proposes, would only increase overcrowding, lead to social instability and hurt tourism. The island is a beach haven for wealthy Italians, but lately the news of over-crowded facilities and a record number of boat landings has kept some away. Most islanders have sympathy for the migrants, but others worry that a second identification center and longer detentions will cause those who are being detained to revolt. "What if there are over three or four thousand inside those tiny facilities?" says Riccardo Garito. "If they break out and fight us, we will have a civil war."

If the tourism trade continues to decline, many locals say they will leave to seek employment elsewhere. Roberto Cabiddu, who makes his living from the tourism industry, is not only worried that the new detention center and the effects of the security pact will detract tourists, but that it will compromise basic amenities like health care, schools and other services on the island. "People in Lampedusa are not against the migrants," he says inside a protest tent he and others set up in the city's main square. "Nobody minds if they are here temporarily in transit to the mainland. But if they keep them here longer and more keep coming, we will have a big problem on our hands."

No one knows how to keep the boats from coming. Libya signed an agreement with Italy in August to start patrols in exchange for investment in Libya's infrastructure. But that agreement has not yet been passed by the Italian Parliament, and Libya has hinted that it wants more concessions before it will start patrols to stop the flow. The agreement won't help even if it is ratified, says Laura Boldrini, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Italy. "The Libyans will not have a mandate to physically stop the boats from leaving. They cannot shoot at them and they cannot ram them," she says. "What will they do, yell, wave a flag to get them to stop?"

The United Nations, along with the Red Cross, Amnesty International and Save the Children, have called for measures to better identify people's nationality and move them more quickly to open centers on the mainland. These groups are not against a second detention center on the island to alleviate overcrowding and improve conditions for the refugees, but they worry that Italy's tough stance would compromise their human rights. "There is no recipe in fighting against irregular migration," says Boldrini. "You have to address the causes. And when there is desperation, there will always be those who risk their lives to escape it. Punishing those people doesn't make sense."

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