'Tourism Will Collapse' Plans to Intern Illegal Africans Outrage Lampedusans

Residents of the Italian island of Lampedusa are rebelling against Rome. Thousands of refugees who have arrived there by boat could soon be interred on the small island -- to prevent them from disappearing into the European Union.

By Clemens Höges in Lampedusa, Italy


When drama becomes commonplace, even idealists can sound callous at times. Antonino Maggiore says that he wants to build "a better world" -- for Italians, even more so for persecuted foreigners and, in fact, for everyone. Maggiore is 25, an age at which idealistic pronouncements like that are to be expected. He manages an organization called Alternative Youth and works for a station called Radio Delta on the island of Lampedusa off the North African coast, a forward post of fortress Europe.

His friends at Radio Delta broadcast feel-good music touting a better world, while Maggiore reports the news from the real world. There is only one type of report, however, that he never reads, namely that Lampedusa's two gray customs cruisers have towed yet another dilapidated wooden rowboat into the harbor. Some of the passengers -- men, women and children from Africa -- are invariably dead or half-dead by the time they arrive in Lampedusa. "If I had to report these stories again and again," says Maggiore, "I would be reporting the same news every day."

Last year, 36,952 boat refugees arrived on Italy's shores. About 31,000 of them landed on Lampedusa. No one knows how many died in the attempt to reach Europe. Aid organizations estimate that for every three refugees that make it, one is left behind at sea.

The African continent itself is like the sea over which the migrants travel across -- it sends wave after wave of refugees crashing towards the cliffs of Europe's shores each year. The waves are unstoppable, and the only way to fend them off is to build new breakwaters. The Spaniards began the process by first sealing off the Straits of Gibraltar, and then their North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Today the 130-kilometer (81-mile) passage from Tunisia to Lampedusa, a 10-hour journey by fishing boat, is the easiest route for refugees from Africa.

This, as Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi reasons, is precisely why the Mediterranean tourist island must become Europe's most effective breakwater. His center-right coalition wants to build a large new detention center there. During last April's elections, the country's right-wing parties campaigned on a promise to eject illegal immigrants as quickly as possible. And now they are about to make good on that promise -- on Lampedusa.

Under Rome's proposed new policy, refugees will no longer be transported directly to the mainland, but will be held in camps on the island instead. Lampedusa is ideal for this purpose. No one can leave without a boat, and a stranger would have trouble hiding for more than a few minutes in the single town on the island. The Africans shall be deported to some other country, eventually -- but it will be difficult, and it will take time.

The 6,000 Italians living on Lampedusa have spent the last two weeks rioting and striking to protest the government's plans for their island. They are worried that the detention center could harm tourism, one of the mainstays of the local economy. After all, who books a vacation in Guantanamo? Some fear that thousands of refugees will converge on Lampedusa, and that the entire operation will be bigger than the Americans' notorious detainee camp.

Despite such fears, there is no racist or xenophobic graffiti here. Residents do not chant hostile slogans, and the Italians have even built a memorial to drowned refugees. Many wish the Africans a good life -- just not on their island. In this respect, they agree with the roughly 1,300 refugees who are now locked up in the old transitional camp, which was built to accommodate 380 people.

The residents of Lampedusa reserve their loathing for Berlusconi and Interior Minister Roberto Maroni of the right-wing Northern League. They are particularly incensed over Berlusconi's recent claim that he was unaware of any poor conditions on Lampedusa, and that he believed that the refugees were free to "go out as they wish and drink a beer." Island residents now fear that tourists will think that they will encounter drinking Africans on the island. The refugees, for their part, know firsthand that the prime minister's words are nonsense.

Two Fridays ago, the Italians, led by their mayor, marched to the camp. When the refugees saw them, they jumped the fences, shouted "freedom, freedom" and joined the protest march.

Then the islanders staged a general strike, essentially shutting down Lampedusa. There is already little activity there in the winter, but it was a signal nevertheless.

"We still want a future," says Antonino Maggiore, but he doesn't envision spending it working as a prison guard. The boat people want to go to Europe, not Lampedusa. Why, Maggiore asks, should this small island have to solve a problem that has all of Europe stumped?

Map: Lampedusa
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Map: Lampedusa

No refugee has ever stayed on Lampedusa. Many go underground, picking oranges in Spain, cleaning toilets in France or washing dishes in the restaurants of Hamburg or Munich -- as illegal workers or "clandestini" (the secret ones), as they are called on Lampedusa. They don't want to return to Ethiopia or Mali, where they have paid human traffickers anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000 for a one-way journey away from home. Whether they perish or survive, their fates are often decided on the last step to Europe, the step to Lampedusa.

The traffickers drop anchor at coastal villages in Tunisia or Libya. Pointing north with their fingers, they tell the refugees that once they see land, they should destroy the rudders or rickety motors on their boats. After that, all they can do is wait.

If a drifting boat is not discovered, the people on board will die. But if they are spotted, by patrol planes operated by the European border control agency Frontex, for example, they are protected by Article 98 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which stipulates the duty to render assistance to a ship in distress. When that happens, the speedboats from Lampedusa will reliably head out to the refugee boat and tow the illegal immigrants into the port.

The islanders have become accustomed to these temporary guests. This is not difficult, because no one sees them. Lampedusa is nine kilometers (5.6 miles) long and three kilometers (1.9 miles) wide, and there is only one small town. Years ago, the government built the old camp in a ravine. Fences and guards stationed around the camp ensure that the refugees stay out of the town. It is as if they were still in Africa.

Mauro Buccarello fears that all of this will change when the new camp is built. The practice of looking away, cultivated over the years, could come back to roost. "The problem is the psychology of the tourist," says Buccarello. He is 32 and very well dressed. He wears thick silver rings on his thumbs and little fingers, together with expensive clothes, and he has a lot to lose. He earns a handsome living taking scuba divers to the most beautiful spots along the jagged coast in his boat.

But tourists can be sensitive creatures. They don't want to see squalor or feel anxiety. Many tourists will stay away from the island if they know that thousands of Africans without prospects are being housed on Lampedusa. The fact that the government in faraway Rome plans to build the camp at the end of the island, on the grounds of a former military station, doesn't help.

In other words, nothing will change for tourists, and yet everything will be different, Bernardino de Rubeis, the mayor, fears. Everyone on the island calls him by his nickname, "Dino." He is more than two meters (6'6") tall. "If people think that this will be an open-air prison for 5,000 immigrants, tourism on Lampedusa will collapse."

Berlusconi's people would not be able to deport the refugees quickly enough, if at all, says de Rubeis, noting that Italy only has a functioning treaty with Egypt, but that few boat people come from there. No one wants to accept the rest.

"If we want everything to remain as it is, everything will have to change," Alain Delon says to Burt Lancaster in the film "The Leopard." Giuseppe Tomasi wrote the novel on which the screenplay was based. When a big wave comes, he wrote, it is impossible to swim against it. There was no talk of African refugees at the time.

But many on the island are familiar with his book, published in 1958. Tomasi was the Duke of Palma, Baron of Montechiaro and Prince of Lampedusa.

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