Lampedusa: sea of tradgedy, Island of lonliness

Article published on March 25, 2014
Article published on March 25, 2014

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

In the midst of a climate of helplessness and neglect, loneliness prevails on the island of Lampedusa. Facing an increasing influx of African immigrants, the locals have managed to organise themselves and create a system of ‘social wellbeing’ to attend to those who have recently arrived. 

Nei­ther the slow­ness of Eu­ro­pean in­sti­tu­tions nor des­per­a­tion can deter the brave is­landers, who have brought into ef­fect the Cus­tom of the Sea.

Lampe­dusa, Italy, 2011. “The streets ap­pear to be made of human be­ings rather than con­crete. A ten year old boy calls at my door. I give him warm milk and bis­cuits. As the door closes be­hind him, I worry about where he will go. I suf­fer, think­ing that my help is only tem­po­rary”. These are the words of An­tonella Raf­faele, a local on this af­flicted is­land. She de­scribes in a steady voice the sit­u­a­tion that reached the Ital­ian is­land in 2011, when only dur­ing the first three months of that year more than 18 000 im­mi­grants, from the north of Africa, dis­em­barked onto their coasts as a re­sult of the Arab Spring

For years, the tiny is­land of Lampe­dusa, sit­u­ated in the Mediter­ranean Sea and closer to Africa than its own Italy, has been the cho­sen des­ti­na­tion for waves of African im­mi­grants who flee poverty, con­flict or per­se­cu­tion. They travel in wooden boats which are often over­crowded and in­suf­fi­ciently equipped, li­able to cap­size in high seas. And with barely 5000 in­hab­i­tants, the is­land has be­come one of the main and most frag­ile ‘points of entry’ into Eu­rope. Said waves have not sub­sided since 2011. How­ever, it wasn’t until last Oc­to­ber, when 360 im­mi­grants drowned half a mile away from Lampe­dusa that the ques­tion about im­mi­gra­tion re­ally came to the fore in Eu­ro­pean de­bate. 

GIV­ING MEAN­ING TO THE WORD 'SOL­I­DAR­ITY' 

Hav­ing said that, for more than a decade the south­ern is­land has been wit­ness to an ex­treme and frag­ile ex­pres­sion of civic sol­i­dar­ity. Lo­cals in the area have im­pro­vised a sys­tem of ‘so­cial well­be­ing’ to tend to the in­creas­ingly large num­ber of im­mi­grants. After pass­ing through the only ex­ist­ing im­mi­gra­tion cen­tre on the is­land de­signed to host around 300 peo­ple for a max­i­mum of two days – a fig­ure well below the num­ber of that which has ar­rived in re­cent years – im­mi­grants are left to their own de­vices on the streets of Lampe­dusa. Dirty, fright­ened, home­sick, alone and con­fused, far from their coun­try. It is at this mo­ment when the is­landers’ true sol­i­dar­ity be­gins. 

“Do you need a coat? A pair of shoes?” asks Grazia Raf­faele from his win­dow. See­ing crowds of im­mi­grants pass­ by his house has be­come daily rou­tine. “When the is­land has to con­front major emer­gen­cies, human sol­i­dar­ity sur­rounds the vil­lage”.  And with no more than their own re­sources, they make any­thing from food to cloth­ing avail­able to those who have re­cently ar­rived, as well as sup­port which normally ends up turn­ing into friend­ship. “We were usu­ally mak­ing 600 sand­wiches a day. We were also heat­ing up milk or water to make hot tea”, ex­plains Grazia. “It’s beau­ti­ful. We ral­lied to­gether for a good cause. But later we felt as though we are in­ca­pable of help­ing be­cause we give them a glass of milk and we think…what hap­pens next?” Con­tribut­ing from the be­gin­ning in any way pos­si­ble, An­to­nio Raf­faele high­lights that “re­cently, the women have begun to knit woollen rugs be­cause there is noth­ing left in their wardrobes. We have given out every­thing,” and he ex­claims: “On a scale of one to ten, we offer a hun­dred!” For char­i­ta­ble or­gan­i­sa­tions, this hu­man­i­tar­ian aid has not passed by un­no­ticed. Tom­ma­so della Longa, spokesper­son for the Red Cross in Italy recog­nises that “the pop­u­la­tion has a cen­tral role in giv­ing mean­ing to the word: sol­i­dar­ity. Ab­solutely. Help from lo­cals al­ways makes a dif­fer­ence, and is some­thing that we should al­ways be proud of”.

Ac­cord­ing to Grazia, when a fam­ily opens the door to their house, im­mi­grants are able to take a shower or sit down on the sofa. “They call at the door with caution but within a short time they begin to feel at home. We share every­thing. There was even a mo­ment when I re­alised that the mem­bers of my fam­ily had in­creased”. When the in­hab­i­tants of Lampe­dusa are asked whether they are tired of this dis­tress­ing sit­u­a­tion, their an­swer is unan­i­mous: “we are not fed up, but we feel their pain”. “This is al­ways how the cit­i­zens have ex­pressed them­selves about this dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion; they have never been against im­mi­grants, but rather against the gov­ern­ment. They feel aban­doned”, con­firms Della Longa. 

eu­rope and the cus­tom of the sea 

Through a labyrinth of bureaucratic processes, the Italian government takes charge of tackling the issue of immigration, organising strategies and creating long-term projects - co-founded by the European Union – as Prae­si­dium: an initiative set up to improve shelter on the island.  These projects are the only medium that Lampedusa has to tackle these migratory flows. However, before any organisation manages to act on this; well before economic aid comes to the island, the people of Lampedusa, having always respected their old ‘Custom of the Sea’, are already there offering their immediate help. 

In what could be characterised as a turning point in the history of Europe, an inevitable question arises: if the man on the street in Lampedusa can – with scant resources – demonstrate this unprecedented respect for human life and human rights, why does the EU not react to effectively save lives? It is likely that European institutions and national governments have to learn the lesson of this paradigmatic expression of solidarity, looking more closely at European borders and refocussing their approach with respect to immigration.

“Our children play football with theirs in the square. We meet in bars and offer them a cappuccino, although they never ask for anything. You have to look into their eyes to understand them”, concludes Antonella as she closes the door.