News from Lampedusa - a personal report

Lampedusa is the very first place where migrants land after their difficult journey from north Africa. From here they are sent to several detention centers in Italy.

A new centre is going to be open in the next days in a residence in Mineo, close to Catania (Sicily) in what used to be a residence for NATO employees!

It seems that up to now about 8000 migrants have arrived from Tunisia.

At the moment there are probably about 1400 migrants in the Lampedusa detention center (there is barely space for 800!)

What follows is a personal account of an NoBorder activist's journey to Lampedusa.

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

On the ferry boat, apart from some residents of Lampedusa, some journalists and photographers, there were at least a dozen of policeman 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. Out of curiosity, I asked if he could speak Arabic and we started chatting. He told us that he had been in Lampedusa many times since his language skills are very useful. He said that he was there even when two years ago the migrants set fire to the centre where they were detained.

We asked him if it was possible to get to visit the centre and he left us his telephone number telling us that he would let us know how to do it.

He also told us that many of his colleagues wanted to beat the migrants but he would always prevent them from doing it.

As soon as we landed in the small beautiful island we quickly found a place for the night and after a shower we went out to explore Lampedusa.

The village is quite small: there are about 5500 people living here but since their economy is mainly based on tourism there are many hotels and empty holiday houses.

There were lots of police and Carabinieri going around on cars and vans and a few Tunisians walking around apparently without any problem. They are not supposed to leave the detention center since a mayor injunction restrains them from walking freely in the village. But they are so many that the police cannot control them properly and 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 their short term escapes are tolerated.

We soon found our way to the detention centre, that is at about 15 minutes walking from the village. Unfortunately we were blocked at a police check point: They told us that we could not pass and when we asked “Why?” they answered “Because you cannot pass!”... After the clear explanation we went back thinking to try and find an alternative route trough the countryside.

We soon met 2 Tunisian guys. They were going back to the center after they had bought some food in the village. We warned them that the police was there but they told us that there was no problem. And in fact the police let them pass after a quick look at their shopping bags.

A few meters away 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. It seems that for more than one thousand people detained, there are usually only 4 cooks and a few more people to help out. One day last week there were three thousands Tunisians and even then they had to do all the job. He told us that for 40 years he had been a fisherman but in the last years he had to find another job because fishing doesn't give enough money to all the people of Lampedusa.

The old man dropped us close to a bar in the village. We stopped there for a coffee and a couple of Cannoli (best sicilian sweets besides, according to some activists holy Cannoli rituals bring good luck!). The bar was full of journalists all busy to talk between them or on their mobiles.

After a bit we went again to walk around.

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 that was taking some pictures of some Tunisians. They were surprised to hear my bad Arabic and they were happy to tell us more about them. The all came from Gerba: a group of about 40 friends bought a boat together paying about 2000 euros each, according to their possibilities. 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 to the Tunisians if anyone could speak Italian. I asked who they were working for. They said “Mediaset”. I said “Ah! Berlusconi!”...

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

In the evening we went to a local pub. There I met a man from Lampedusa that was suggesting me that we should look into the fact that according to him many Tunisian boat have very new Italian engines and really good GPS that usually disappear after that the boat get rescued. He also explained me that Lampedusans would like to help the migrants but they are causing the lots of losses: tourists are canceling their bookings because the media give them the impression that the island is full of Migrants and maybe unsafe.

Later on we met the Policeman that was supposed to help us to find out how to get a permission to visit the detention centre. He told us we should call an Office in Agrigento. He also tried to convince us with is theories that most of the migrants are escaping from jails: “that's why they do not have passports and they do not want to be identified and when they are in the courtyards of the detention center they go all the time back and forward as they do in prison!”

hahaha! Very high level italian police psychology!

This morning, we found the way trough 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 met on the boat throwing a stone to a migrant that managed to run away from the detention center! When he saw 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 seen and filmed him throwing the stone he started to try to convince 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!

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 of which 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 to face the emergency.

This evening we went to have a beer. After a bit a group of young Tunisians arrived and ordered a beer. The girl at the bar explained them that she could not serve them alcohol. There seems to be an mayor injunction also for that! They eventually had to drink coffees. But they sat close to us so we could let them drink some beer while nobody was watching!

In the next days Marine Le Pen, leader of the french Front National and Mario Borghezio, member of the Lega Nord, ultra racist Italian party, will come 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.

Actually today I have read an article where they speak about “the activism of tourist operators, hotel owners and young people to try and raise the institutions' awareness in front of the negative consequences of the immigration emergency on the economy of the island”.

The Red Cross and UNHCR offered first help when the 26 Tunisians landed before putting them in a bus that would bring them in the detention centre.

The Tunisian guys I spoke with, told me that there is someone giving them legal advice inside the center but they look quite confused about what would expect them.

For example they told me the police took their finger prints and they have asked me why.

I tried to explain them that according to European law they have to claim asylum in the first safe country where they arrive.

Most of them want to go to France but I imagine that that will be quite difficult.

Here the only banners that I have seen up to now are against the media that showing what is happening in this island put their economy a risk!