#Lampedusa : ’Operational emergency,’ not ’migration crisis’
Thousands of migrants have arrived on Lampedusa from Africa this week, with the EU at odds over what to do with them. DW reports from the Italian island, where locals are showing compassion as conditions worsen.
Long lines of migrants and refugees, wearing caps and towels to protect themselves from the blistering September sun, sit flanked on either side of a narrow, rocky lane leading to Contrada Imbriacola, the main migrant reception center on the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Among them are 16-year-old Abubakar Sheriff and his 10-year old brother, Farde, who fled their home in Sierra Leone and reached Lampedusa by boat from Tunisia.
“We’ve been on this island for four days, have been sleeping outside and not consumed much food or water. We’ve been living on a couple of biscuits,” Abubakar told DW. “There were 48 people on the boat we arrived in from Tunisia on September 13. It was a scary journey and I saw some other boats capsizing. But we got lucky.”
Together with thousands of other migrants outside the reception center, they’re waiting to be put into police vans headed to the Italian island’s port. They will then be transferred to Sicily and other parts of Italy for their asylum claims to be processed, as authorities in Lampedusa say they have reached “a tipping point” in migration management.
Not a ’migration crisis for Italy,’ but an ’operational emergency’
More than 7,000 migrants arrived in Lampedusa on flimsy boats from Tunisia earlier this week, leading the island’s mayor, Filippo Mannino, to declare a state of emergency and tell local media that while migrants have always been welcomed, this time Lampedusa “is in crisis.”
In a statement released on Friday, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said her government intends to take “immediate extraordinary measures” to deal with the landings. She said this could include a European mission to stop arrivals, “a naval mission if necessary.” But Lampedusa, with a population of just 6,000 and a reception center that has a capacity for only 400 migrants, has more immediate problems.
Flavio Di Giacomo, spokesperson for the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), told DW that while the new arrivals have been overwhelming for the island, this is not a “migration crisis for Italy.”
“This is mainly an operational emergency for Lampedusa, because in 2015-2016, at the height of Europe’s migration crisis, only 8% of migrants arrived in Lampedusa. The others were rescued at sea and transported to Sicily to many ports there,” he said. “This year, over 70% of arrivals have been in Lampedusa, with people departing from Tunisia, which is very close to the island.”
Di Giacomo said the Italian government had failed to prepare Lampedusa over the past few years. “The Italian government had time to increase the reception center’s capacity after it was set up in 2008,” he said. “Migration is nothing new for the country.”
Why the sudden increase?
One of Italy’s Pelagie Islands in the Mediterranean, Lampedusa has been the first point of entry to Europe for people fleeing conflict, poverty and war in North Africa and the Middle East for years, due to its geographical proximity to those regions. But the past week’s mass arrival of migrants caught local authorities off guard.
“We have never seen anything like what we saw on Wednesday,” said a local police officer near the asylum reception center.
Showing a cellphone video of several small boats crammed with people arriving at the Lampedusa port, he added, “2011 was the last time Lampedusa saw something like this.” When the civil war in Libya broke out in 2011, many people fled to Europe through Italy. At the time, Rome declared a “North Africa emergency.”
Roberto Forin, regional coordinator for Europe at the Mixed Migration Centre, a research center, said the recent spike in arrivals likely had one main driving factor. “According to our research with refugees and migrants in Tunisia, the interceptions by Tunisian coast guards of boats leaving toward Italy seems to have decreased since the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding in mid-July between the European Union and Tunisia,” he said. “But the commission has not yet disbursed the €100 million ($106.6 million) included in the deal.”
The EU-Tunisia deal is meant to prevent irregular migration from North Africa and has been welcomed by EU politicians, including Meloni. But rights groups have questioned whether it will protect migrants. Responding to reporters about the delayed disbursement of funds, the European Commission said on Friday that the disbursement was still a “work in progress.”
IOM’s Giacomo said deals between the EU and North African countries aren’t the answer. “It is a humanitarian emergency right now because migrants are leaving from Tunisia, because many are victims of racial discrimination, assault, and in Libya as well, their rights are being abused,” he said. "Some coming from Tunisia are also saying they are coming to Italy to get medical care because of the economic crisis there.
“The solution should be to organize more search-and-rescue at sea, to save people and bring them to safety,” he added. “The focus should be on helping Lampedusa save the migrants.”
A group of young migrants from Mali who were sitting near the migrant reception center, with pink tags on their hands indicating the date of their arrival, had a similar view.
“We didn’t feel safe in Tunisia,” they told DW. “So we paid around €750 to a smuggler in Sfax, Tunisia, who then gave us a dinghy and told us to control it and cross the sea toward Europe. We got to Italy but we don’t want to stay here. We want to go to France and play football for that country.”
Are other EU nations helping?
At a press briefing in Brussels on Wednesday, the European Commission said that 450 staff from Europol, Frontex and the European Union Agency for Asylum have been deployed to the island to assist Italian authorities, and €40 million ($42.6 million) has been provided for transport and other infrastructure needed for to handle the increase in migrant arrivals.
But Italian authorities have said they’re alone in dealing with the migrants, with Germany restricting Italy from transferring migrants and France tightening its borders with the country.
Lampedusa Deputy Mayor Attilio Lucia was uncompromising: “The message that has to get through is that Europe has to wake up because the European Union has been absent for 20 years. Today we give this signal: Lampedusa says ’Enough’, the Lampedusians have been suffering for 20 years and we are psychologically destroyed,” he told DW.
“I understand that this was done mostly for internal politics, whereby governments in France and Germany are afraid of being attacked by far-right parties and therefore preemptively take restrictive measures,” said Forin. “On the other hand, it is a measure of the failure of the EU to mediate a permanent and sustainable mechanism. When solidarity is left to voluntary mechanisms between states there is always a risk that, when the stakes are high, solidarity vanishes.”
As politicians and rights groups argue over the right response, Lampedusa locals like Antonello di Malta and his mother feel helping people should be the heart of any deal.
On the night more than 7,000 people arrived on the island, di Malta said his mother called him saying some migrants had come to their house begging for food. “I had to go out but I didn’t feel comfortable hearing about them from my mother. So I came home and we started cooking spaghetti for them. There were 10 of them,” he told DW, adding that he was disappointed with how the government was handling the situation.
“When I saw them I thought about how I would have felt if they were my sons crying and asking for food,” said Antonello’s mother. “So I started cooking for them. We Italians were migrants too. We used to also travel from north to south. So we can’t get scared of people and we need to help.”
Mohammad still has faith in the Italian locals helping people like him. “I left horrible conditions in Gambia. It is my first time in Europe and local people here have been nice to me, giving me a cracker or sometimes even spaghetti. I don’t know where I will be taken next, but I have not lost hope,” he told DW.
“I stay strong thinking that one day I will play football for Italy and eventually, my home country Gambia,” he said. “That sport gives me joy through all this hardship.”
#débarquements #asile #migrations #réfugiés #Italie #crise #compassion #transferts #urgence_opérationnelle #crise_migratoire #Europol #Frontex #Agence_de_l'Union_européenne_pour_l'asile (#EUEA #EUAA) #solidarité