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Italy’s Lampedusa: Back on the migration front line

‘The situation needs a planned, long-term approach.’

Migrants sit on the ground after disembarking in Lampedusa
Migrants sit on the ground after disembarking in the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, Italy, in June 2019. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/REUTERS)

An uptick in arrivals this summer has stretched asylum processing facilities on the Italian island of Lampedusa – closer to North Africa than mainland Italy – beyond capacity, adding to the ammunition used by right-wing politicians to stoke fears and tensions over migration during the coronavirus pandemic.

In recent months, asylum seekers and migrants have escaped from overcrowded quarantine centres in various parts of Italy, 28 people rescued at sea have tested positive for COVID-19, and viral outbreaks have been recorded in at least three migration reception centres due to an absence of adequate social distancing space.

Infections among migrants made up less than five percent of Italy’s total caseload during the first half of August: In comparison, 25 percent of new infections consisted of Italians returning from abroad. But the migrant infections have provided fodder for right-wing political figures – such as former interior minister Matteo Salvini – who have used the pandemic since it began in March to advance a long-standing anti-migrant agenda. 

The UN has warned that the pandemic is leading to a rise in hate speech, xenophobia, and stigmatisation. “Migrants and refugees are among those who have falsely been blamed and vilified for spreading the virus,” the UN said in May.

The risk of asylum seekers and migrants transmitting the disease in Italy is low, and the comparatively high number of reported infections among migrants in recent months is due to meticulous testing, according to Pier Luigi Lopalco, an epidemiologist at the University of Pisa.

Asylum seekers and migrants don’t pose any “greater threat than tourists coming from other parts of Italy or Europe who, on the other hand, do not get tested at their arrival,” Lopalco told The New Humanitarian.

“All the pressure stands on Lampedusa’s shoulders at the moment.” 

Italy’s centre-left government came to office last September promising a break from the anti-migrant policies put in place by Salvini during his tenure as interior minister in 2018 and 2019. But so far the government has taken a hard line on continued arrivals, declaring the country’s ports unsafe in April and impounding four NGO search and rescue ships. It has also deployed the army to several reception centres to prevent escapes while the governors of some Italian regions are refusing to take in migrants transferred from Lampedusa.

These policies are piling more pressure on the small island as an increasing number of people arrive directly to its shores – 130 kilometers (80 miles) from North Africa and 210 kilometers (130 miles) from Sicily – instead of being rescued at sea. 

The situation intensified on 30 August after a large wooden fishing boat carrying around 400 people reached the island – something unprecedented in recent years – prompting protests among locals and pledges from the central government that it would take action to help alleviate the situation.

With few search and rescue vessels at sea and other parts of Italy resisting taking in asylum seekers and migrants from the island, “all the pressure stands on Lampedusa’s shoulders at the moment,” Marta Bernardini, an aid worker with the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy, based on Lampedusa, told TNH.

The situation isn’t getting any better

So far this year, nearly 17,400 asylum seekers and migrants have crossed the sea to Italy, compared to fewer than 11,500 in all of 2019. The numbers are a far cry from the height of the migration crisis in the Central Mediterranean in 2016, when more than 180,000 people landed in the country. 

The majority of the asylum seekers and migrants are from Bangladesh, West Africa, Sudan, and North Africa. But Tunisians, pushed to migrate by long-standing economic woes in their country, made worse recently by the pandemic, account for over 40 percent of those arriving – a significant increase over previous years and by far the largest of any national group.

During stretches of good weather this summer, as many as 13 boats a day have arrived to Lampedusa, according to Bernardini: Most are small, sometimes carrying a single family of six to eight people. 

Meanwhile, the one migration reception centre (called a ‘hotspot’ in Italy) on Lampedusa is overflowing. Built to house a maximum of 192 people, the facility has hosted as many as 1,000 asylum seekers and migrants since July, according to the island’s mayor. 

Since the beginning of August, Italy’s central government has sent two ferries to be used as quarantine facilities with the combined capacity to hold around 1,250 people to help reduce the overcrowding. After the landing on 30 August, it also pledged to send three more ferries and to use military vessels to quarantine some people and transfer others to Sicily. The government also restarted bi-weekly repatriation flights to Tunisia on 10 August after they were put on hold due to coronavirus in March. 

Lampedusa’s mayor, Salvatore Martello, took office in 2017 representing a local, left-wing political party that espouses more moderate migration policies. Even with the additional capacity, repatriation flights, and infrequent transfers to other parts of Italy, the pace of arrivals means that the situation isn’t getting any better, he told TNH.

“By the time they [asylum seekers and migrants] leave, new ones will have already arrived, leaving the hotspot perpetually crowded. The situation needs a planned, long-term approach to be effective,” Martello said.

Treating boat refugees with dignity?

The around 6,000 people who call Lampedusa home are well acquainted with migration. For decades, tens of thousands of people have crossed the Central Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy, many first landing on the island, making arrivals part of daily life. 

When the number of asylum seekers and migrants crossing the sea began to spike in 2013 and 2014, the island’s residents helped to rescue people from shipwrecks and feed and care for those who came ashore. Their actions garnered international attention and a nod from the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which nominated the citizens of the island for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 for “treating boat refugees with dignity”.

“It wasn’t all of us, of course. Even in the past, there were some Lampedusans who didn’t want to have anything to do with migrants,” Francesco Tuccio, a carpenter with a small workshop in the island’s main village, told TNH. 

Tuccio volunteered with the local church parish to provide relief to migrants in 2013 and 2014. “The atmosphere back then was different because migrants coming here were mainly running away from the chaos of the Arab Spring or from conflict in Eritrea. They’d come here wounded, starving to death, and we were keener to extend our hands to them,” he said. 

Now, the threat of the global pandemic and the fact that people are perceived as escaping an economic crisis in North Africa instead of conflict has changed people’s perceptions. Many locals, including Tuccio, have started to feel that bearing the brunt of the arrivals this year is becoming a burden, he said. 

“Even in the past, there were some Lampedusans who didn’t want to have anything to do with migrants.”

The public discourse around migration in Italy has also changed dramatically since 2014. Right-wing populist parties, such as Salvini’s League, have stoked anti-migrant sentiments, pushing aside a humanitarian narrative that was more prominent in the past. 

In 2017, the number of people departing from Libya dropped dramatically. For a couple of years, fewer people landed on Lampedusa. That was until the surge in arrivals this summer. 

Locals were hoping that a strong tourist season would help repair some of the economic damage suffered during Italy’s two-month lockdown between March and May. But many potential visitors cancelled their reservations for August and September after seeing headlines about the number of asylum seekers and migrants that arrived in July, according to Tuccio. 

Asylum seekers and migrants have also been slipping out of the reception centre to escape the overcrowding and search for food to supplement their daily rations, according to Italian media reports. Their presence outside the centre has led to fears among residents about the potential spread of the virus. Fake news stories circulating on social media networks and rhetoric from the far-right painting asylum seekers and migrants as a threat are only making the situation worse, said Martello, the mayor.

A group of around 60 residents has been organising occasional demonstrations at Lampedusa’s port, demanding asylum seekers and migrants not be brought to the island. Other small groups of citizens have occasionally showed up at the port when dinghies approach, shouting at the passengers to return to their countries. Following the most recent arrival of around 400 people, Salvini’s League party organised a protest on the island, with some attendees yelling “enough” and laying down on the ground. 

Change on the horizon? 

Many Lampedusans, regardless of their political stance on migration, say they feel abandoned by the central government, and people who were hoping that Italy’s current government would break from previous hardline policies have been disappointed. 

The government is yet to repeal security decrees pushed for by Salvini that stripped tens of thousands of people of humanitarian protection and legal residency and hobbled Italy’s reception system. The government also extended Italy’s controversial support for the Libyan Coast Guard in February and July, and is still hindering the work of search and rescue NGOs by impounding boats and issuing fines, according to Maurizio Ambrosini, a professor of migration sociology at the University of Milan. 

Italy’s governing coalition, comprised of the centre-left Democratic Party and the populist Five Star Movement, is split over what direction to take. But things may be about to change, according to Ambrosini. 

“The first signals occurred in May with the regularisation of over 200,000 seasonal migrant workers,” he said. “Although the move raised a lot of criticism, we cannot deny that it was the biggest immigration reform a Western country has done during this pandemic and the most significant for Italy in the past 10 years.” 

The Italian parliament is set to reconvene in September, and deciding whether to abolish Salvini’s security decrees is on the agenda. If the decrees are abolished, that could signal a more open approach to search and rescue, disembarkation, and the recognition of humanitarian protections that would help take some of the pressure off of Lampedusa, according to Ambrosini.

For now, though, with its reception centre overflowing, and residents growing more worried – and some angrier, the mayor says he is ready to declare a state of emergency on the island to pressure the government to provide more support. “We are not saying we want to shut our port to migrants. But the responsibility for this emergency shouldn’t solely fall on our municipality and local residents,” Martello said. “It needs a kind of government support that goes beyond rhetoric.” 

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