giovedì 31 marzo 2011

Report from Lampedusa, Europe’s mediterranean prison island for migrants (Italy)

First hand accounts from Lampedusa, Europe’s island of shame, as more and more refugees arrive from Tunisia and elsewhere in North Africa to be held in an open air prison — if they make it at all.

Lampedusa is the very first place where many migrants land after their difficult journey from North Africa. From here they are sent to several detention centers in Italy. Recently many migrants from Africa arriving in Italian waters were shipped to concentration camps in the Libyan desert under the Berlusconi-Gaddafi migration deal (*1). At least for the moment that arrangement seems on hold, while the numbers are further swelled by refugees fleeing the new conflict zones. It seems that up to now about 8000 migrants have arrived from Tunisia to the island. A new detention centre is about to be opened in Mineo, close to Catania (Sicily), in a former NATO barracks. At the moment there are several thousand migrants being held in the Lampedusa detention center: there is barely space for 800.

* * * * * Thursday March 10th * * * * *

We arrived in Lampedusa yesterday (March 9) but it feels like we have already been here for weeks.

On the ferry boat, as well as some residents of Lampedusa, some journalists and photographers, there were at least a dozen policemen and “carabinieri”. Since they were staring at me all the time, I tried to be polite and greet them. We were approaching the island when I overheard a policeman saying something in Arabic to one of his colleagues. I asked about his Arabic skills and we started chatting. He told us that he had been in Lampedusa many times, his language abilities are very useful. He was there, he said, in 2009 when the migrants set the detention centre. When we asked him if he could help us get to see the centre he gave us his phone number. He also told us that many of his colleagues wanted to beat the migrants but he always stopped them.

It is a small beautiful island. We quickly found a place for the night, had a shower and went out to explore. The village is quite small, about 5,500 people living here, but as their economy is mainly based on tourism there are many hotels and empty holiday homes. We saw lots of police and Carabinieri driving around in cars and vans, and a few Tunisians walking around, apparently without any problem. They are not supposed to leave the detention centre under a mayoral injunction, but there are so many that the police can’t enforce it, so they easily climb the small fences to have a taste of freedom. Besides, the island is so far away from the rest of Europe that these short term escapes are tolerated.

We soon found our way to the detention centre, about a 15 minute walk from the village. Unfortunately we were blocked at a police check point. They told us that we could not pass. We asked “Why not?” They answered: “because you cannot pass!” With that clear explanation we went back and started thinking how to find an alternative route through the countryside.

On the way back we soon met two Tunisian guys. They were going back to the center after buying some food in the village. We warned them about the police checkpoint but they weren’t bothered, and indeed the police let them pass after a quick look at their shopping bags.

A few meters on a man stopped his car and offered us a lift to the village. We accepted. He told us he works in the detention center as a cook. For more than a thousand prisoners there are usually only four cooks and a few helpers. One day last week there were three thousands Tunisians and even then the four of them had to do the whole job. He said he’d been a fisherman for 40 years but had to get another job as fishing can’t support everyone in Lampedusa.

The old man dropped us close to a bar in the village. We stopped there for a coffee and a couple of Cannoli (the best sicilian sweets which also, according to some activists, bring good luck when consumed in holy Cannoli rituals). The bar was full of journalists all busy talking to each other or on their mobiles.

We went for another walk about. Close to the harbour we spotted lots of abandoned boats with names written in Arabic, some of them quite small and old, being used as a background by a photographer taking some pictures of some Tunisians. The Tunisians were surprised to hear my bad Arabic and were happy to tell us more about them. They all came from Gerba: a group of about 40 friends bought a boat together paying about 2000 euros each. They had spent 2 days in the sea before being rescued. They landed in Lampedusa on monday.

While we were talking a car approached us. A man asked the Tunisians if anyone could speak Italian. I asked who they were working for. They said “Mediaset” (Italian TV empire of Berlusconi). I said “Ah! Berlusconi!”…

We spent some more time with a couple of the guys from Gerba. They got very excited when close to a boat they found a Tunisian coin. One of them told us how, before Ben Ali was chased out of Tunisia, he was working as a cook. His salary was just enough to eat and he could not even pay his bills. But now the tourists have gone and he has no job at all. He wants to reach his relatives in France and find a job to earn some money to send to his family back home.

In the evening we went to a local pub. A man from Lampedusa claimed that many Tunisian boats have very new Italian engines and really good GPS systems which usually disappear after the boat get rescued. He said that Lampedusans would like to help the migrants but are worried because the migration problem is losing them lots of money. Tourists are canceling their bookings because the media give the impression that the island is full of migrants and so unsafe.

Later on we met the policeman who had agreed to help us visit the detention centre. He told us we should call an office in Agrigento (Sicily). He tried to convince us of his theory that most of the migrants are escaping from jails so “that’s why they don’t have passports and don’t want to be identified.” He used his high level Italian police psychology arguing that “when they are in the courtyards of the detention center they spend all the time pacing back and forth just as they do in prison!”

This morning we found the way through the fields to get closer to the detention center, maybe 100 meters away from the fences. Some policemen were surrounding the centre to prevent migrants form running away. As soon as we arrived we saw the policeman that we had met on the boat, throwing a stone at a migrant who had managed to run away from the detention center. When he noticed us he came and told us that we were not supposed to be there and we could not film. When he realised that we had filmed him throwing the stone he tried to get us to erase it. I think we have definitely spoiled our friendship. What a pity! I wanted to use him to get more information, maybe also about Frontex (European Union joint border police agency).

Anyway, it seems that tomorrow 100 soldiers will arrive to properly surround the center. That means that the migrants won’t have many chances to go for their little excursions in the village.

Today, in the early afternoon another boat was rescued. There were 26 people including one woman. The boat was spotted in the morning by a Frontex plane. It seems Frontex is providing a plane and two ships to help Lampedusa face the emergency.(*2) When they landed the Red Cross and UNHCR met them and offered first aid. Then they put them on a bus to the detention centre.

This evening we went to have a beer. After a bit a group of young Tunisians arrived and ordered a beer. There seems to be an mayoral injunction against that as well, so they only got coffees. But they sat close to us so we could let them drink some beer while nobody was watching.

In a few days Marie Le Pen, leader of the french Front National, and Mario Borghezio, member of the Lega Nord, ultra racist Italian party, are coming to visit Lampedusa.

I have not been able to make contact with any solidarity organisations here up to now. It seems like there is an invasion of journalists and photographers but no activists at all. Or at least none on our side. Today I read an article where they speak about “the activism of tourist operators, hotel owners and young people to try and raise the institutions’ awareness of the negative consequences of the immigration emergency on the economy of the island”.(*3)

The Tunisian guys we were drinking beer with said that there is someone inside the centre giving legal advice. Yet they seem very confused about their legal rights and what to expect next. They told me that the police had taken their finger prints, and asked me why. I tried to explain to them that according to European law they have to claim asylum in the first safe country they arrive in. Most of them want to go to France but I imagine that won’t be so easy.

The only banners that I have seen up to now are against the media and carry the message that what is happening on the island puts their economy a risk.

* * * * * Saturday March 19th * * * * *

Lampedusa is being used as an open air prison. In the detention centre now there are more than 3000 Tunisians. It is meant to hold only 800. (*4)

There some women amongst them, and many minors. They sleep everywhere: two in every beds, more under the beds, others outside, in any space available, so that there is no space even to walk. They do not have blankets. There is no water to shower. They are given a bottle of water to wash themselves.

There is not much food. They have to queue up for hours and sometimes the food finishes before they get to the end of the queue. When they eat it they immediately want to sleep.

A few days ago Marine Le Pen and Borghezio (Italian Lega nord) came to talk shit inside the centre. (*5) We organised a demonstration of about 30 people to say they were not welcome.

A couple of days ago Stefania Craxi (Vice-Secretary of the minister of foreign affairs) also came to pay a visit. When Ben Ali fled Tunisia she wanted Italy to welcome him. In fact she owed him a favor since Ben Ali had harboured her own father Bettino Craxi when he run away from his trials for corruption. Obviously though she doesn’t think Italy should welcome all Tunisians!

Meanwhile the boats continue to arrive. But some don’t make it. On the 14th a boat sank near the island with about 40 people on board. Five of them were found and saved by another boat. A couple of days ago two corpses were found. (*6)

Today some Tunisians told me that 20 corpses were found recently in Tunisia and that three boats had disappeared.

Yesterday, Lampedusa residents took direct action against the migrants and occupied the harbour to prevent an Italian Coast Guard boat carrying more than 100 people from mooring. They eventually landed late in the evening. The new arrivals are probably sleeping rough.

Today some Tunisians were eventually transferred to other detention centres in Italy after about 10 days of waiting.

The government has found a new solution: tomorrow they will bring a huge boat to moor off the island where they will keep about 1000 migrants. It seems they won’t be transferred anywhere else, just held here until, perhaps by a miracle, some places in other detention centres in the rest of Italy will appear, or maybe the Red Cross will build some tents to shelter the migrants.

* * * * * Monday March 21st * * * * *

Yesterday we were woken up around seven by someone shouting on a megaphone. It was a car telling people to go and occupy the port again, this time to stop the arrival of Red Cross tents probably for at least 10000 people.

The woman at the megaphone is one of the locals who want to save Lampedusa’s tourist economy from the migrants, and are demanding that the Tunisians be transferred elsewhere. We went to the port to check what was happening. The Lampedusans tried to explain to the migrants that they are not against them, they just want them to be transferred quickly anywhere else in Italy. They were asking the Tunisians to join in their demonstration, but most were too scared to get in trouble. Eventually they had to let them unload the tents because otherwise the ferry boat would not leave with the island’s fish.

I met some Tunisians guys who were sleeping at the port and they gave me a tour. There are about 1000 people sleeping there, inside the port there is not even space to walk. Some of them didn’t find space inside and were sleeping outside. No one had been given proper blankets. They had wet clothes when they arrived but were not given a change. Since they arrived (about 4 days ago) they have had almost no food. One guy told me that they had been given one litre of milk to share amongst five men. Some of them were suffering from painful legs or headaches because of the cold. They say doctors go there but don’t do much. I’ll go there now and bring some aspirin. I don’t know what else I can do.

We have already given aspirin in the past days to guys that we know since many of them tell us they are getting sick.

Arrivals continued yesterday as well. During the day, some arrived totally wet because it rained a lot while they were landing. Of course it took a while to find them something to cover themselves. The police (there were many at the port because of the demonstration) gave them their uniforms and their lunches.

A whole family with a small kid, some minors and some very young women arrived. They brought the women and the minors into a council building. I saw them arriving, many barefoot and half naked.

In all this catastrophe, one positive thing. For a couple of days three solicitors who specialise in immigration law were around, so we called a meeting to give some legal advice. I spread the word to many of the Tunisians but just a few of them, maybe about ten, came to the meeting. Many of them just want to go to their families in France and think that once they get there their families will help them.

Save The Children and the UNHCR operators don’t tell them the facts: that they have a right to claim asylum, and that if they don’t claim asylum and say they have just come to find work they will lose their chance to stay in Europe.

The guys that came to the information meeting all had very strong asylum cases. They had all been at the anti-government demonstrations where they had been beaten, and they had had political problems before that. They said that even though Ben Ali has formally resigned his friends and relatives are still in control. It is very sad to hear how the “Jasmin Revolution” has ended for them on a boat towards Europe.

Unfortunately the solicitors will leave soon, but they told us that they’ll try to get other solicitors to come from other Italian cities. Free legal advice is not easy to find in Italy.

In the evening we tried to get inside the detention centre but were spotted by the soldiers on patrol. They saw we weren’t Tunisians and escorted us back to the fences.

Lampedusa Migrant Solidarity


(1) Gaddafi’s role as Europe’s outsourced border policeman since the 2008 Berlusconi deal is one of the worst reported aspects of the recent love-in between the Libyan tyrant and European states. One recent article:

Human Rights Watch Report:






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