Africa, Development & Aid, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, Population

ITALY: Refugees Find Easier Reception, For Now

Matt Carr

LAMPEDUSA, Italy, Jun 21 2011 (IPS) - It’s 4.30 in the morning and the full moon is low in the sky above Lampedusa harbour as the Guardia di Finanza patrol boat escorts a fishing boat containing 19 Tunisian migrants into the closed military port. They include six women, one child and – to the amusement of the Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) team – one sheep. The migrants are driven away in a coach to one of the two holding centres, some of them wrapped in silver emergency blankets. But the sheep remains in the port.

Refugees land at Lampedusa island in Italy. Credit: Ilaria Vechi/IPS.

Refugees land at Lampedusa island in Italy. Credit: Ilaria Vechi/IPS.

Tunisians are something of a rarity amongst the migrants who now come here on an almost daily basis, most of whom are sub-Saharan Africans fleeing the Libyan war. Just over a week ago on Saturday 1,500 migrants arrived in seven boats at the commercial harbour.

“We were working continuously from two in the morning till four in the afternoon,” says Ennio Ciuffi, commander of the Red Cross, which maintains a permanent triage centre on the wharf. Four days later another 280 migrants arrived at six in the morning.

Reception procedures for incoming migrants have improved dramatically since the arrival of 12,000 Tunisians in the space of a few days overwhelmed this tiny volcanic island of 6,000 inhabitants in early March. Today all migrants receive immediate medical assessment and treatment from the Red Cross and MSF. A phalanx of NGOs is present to ensure that those who want refugee protection can apply for it.

Asylum seekers are taken to the two temporary holding centres on the island, from where they are then transported by cruise ships to one of various reception centres on the Italian mainland, many of which have been especially created for the purpose under the auspices of the Ministry of Civil Protection.

Tunisians, on the other hand, are routinely repatriated by the Ministry of Interior as ‘economic migrants’ via Sicily, as the result of a recent agreement between Italy and the Tunisian transitional government.


This conveyor belt system represents a remarkable turnaround from the dysfunctional institutional response to the Tunisian influx earlier this year, when the paralysis of Berlusconi government turned a humanitarian crisis into a near-disaster.

For more than two weeks thousands of Tunisians slept amongst the rocky slope and disused pillboxes next to the airport or on the streets of the town below, while the efforts of Berlusconi and his Northern League partners were directed primarily towards whipping up fears in Europe of an imminent ‘Biblical exodus’ of North African migrants than doing anything to alleviate their plight.

Now Italy’s institutions are working well in Lampedusa. Every day helicopters fly out from the island in response to reports of migrant sightings. The orange-rimmed coastguard vessels and militarised patrol boats of the Guardia di Finanza plough back and forth through the aquamarine seas in search and rescue operations or escorting migrant boats into the harbour.

Some 50-odd of these migrant boats are piled opposite the harbour – a grim monument to Lampedusa’s transformation into Europe’s southernmost migrant gateway. Some were wrecked en route, others were clearly unseaworthy to begin with. Not all those who set out on these journeys have made it to the island. According to the UN Refugee Agency, UNCHR, 1,500 migrants who left North Africa since March have never been accounted for – the single most lethal period in the history of Europe’s Mediterranean migratory frontiers.

Some of these boats are so overcrowded that any extraneous movements can tip them over. Two months ago, according to its commander Captain Antonio Morana, the coastguard rescued 53 people from a capsized boat in which between 100 to 200 people died. The coastguard found only 20 bodies, but it was unable to retrieve them because of the weather. Others have never been accounted for.

The belated response of the Italian government to the crisis in Lampedusa does not indicate a new spirit of humanitarianism from the beleaguered Italian prime minister and his notoriously xenophobic Northern League allies.

Before last week’s mass transfer of 800 migrants to the mainland on Wednesday morning, there were close to 800 people in the largest of the two holding centres – just within its capacity, and another 300 in the smaller centre. Some of their residents had been there for longer than 30 days. Last month there was an attempt to set fire to the main centre, that echoed the disturbances that preceded the centre’s closure in 2009.

The flow of migrants to the island this year was partly a consequence of the breakdown of the 2009 ‘friendship agreement’ between Italy and Libya, which enabled Italian and Maltese vessels to ‘push back’ migrant boats into Libyan territorial waters where the migrants would be detained by Colonel Gaddafi’s security forces.

“Seventy-five percent of the people that entered Lampedusa from Libya were asylum seekers, and of these some 50 percent were in need of some form of protection,” says Barbara Molinario, UNHCR field officer on the island. “So when these governments made this agreement with Libya what they did was to stop the main asylum route to Europe.”

Neither Italy nor Europe are enthusiastic about the renewed flows. UNHCR has urged NATO to do more to assist migrant boats coming from Libya, but last week Berlusconi’s Interior Minister Roberto Maroni urged NATO to stop migrants leaving Libya – a policy that would leave them stranded in a warzone.

On Friday Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini signed a new agreement in Naples with the Libyan National Transitional Council, which will commit Gaddafi’s successors to a similar role in Europe’s migratory controls.

On Sunday the UN High Commissioner Antonio Guterres visited the island, accompanied by UNHCR goodwill ambassador Angelina Jolie, and appealed for Italy and Europe to show more solidarity towards the refugees coming to the island.

Gutteres described the 40,000 migrants who have come to Lampedusa as a ‘drop in the ocean’ for Europe as a whole. But the agreement with the Libyan rebels suggests once again that for the Italian government – and for many other European countries – closing Europe’s ‘asylum route’ to Lampedusa remains more important than keeping it open.

 
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