An Influx of Refugees Finding Help, Hate and Hope on Lampedusa

As the tiny Mediterranean island of Lampedusa struggles with another influx of refugees, its inhabitants are torn about how they should respond. While some only see problems for their safety and livelihood, others are doing all they can to provide comfort to the less fortunate. But everyone fears they may soon reach their limit.


By  in Lampedusa, Italy

"A little more couscous?" Annalisa D'Ancona asks, scooping more noodles and vegetables onto a plastic plate, as Tunisian refugees crowd around her.

"Thank you," says one of them in French. "That's very kind of you."

"Dig in," D'Ancona replies in Italian. "It's for everyone." She's cooked four kilograms of pasta and two and a half kilograms of couscous today, all free of charge. But it's not nearly enough for everyone.

There are almost 2,000 refugees still on Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island in the Mediterranean, all of whom made their way across from Tunisia in recent days. Today, together with other locals, D'Ancona has lugged three large pots to the fittingly named Liberty Square in the middle of the island. It was a spontaneous offering, D'Ancona says. "Eating together is the best way to show solidarity."

This is not the first time she and the others have cooked for the refugees. Lampedusa lies closer to Africa than Europe and, for years, many exhausted North Africans dreaming of a better life in Europe have managed to reach the island. But not long ago, the boats stopped landing here, and Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni declared the problem solved for good last July.

Anger and Equanimity

But now the problem is back -- and worse than ever. All of a sudden, Lampedusa is back in the world's headlines.

In the past, refugees were hastily herded into the island's detention center and locked up. But now they are wandering through the small town's streets, kicking a football or just sitting by the harbor. The police simply leave the gates to the refugee center open. Too many people have come, and cooping up thousands of Tunisians in a facility built for 800 just isn't feasible. All of Lampedusa has become a detention center.

The island's residents alternate between anger and equanimity, between wanting to push the refugees away and wanting to help them. They wonder what might happen should the men run out of money for food. Or they wonder if some of the refugees might actually be prison escapees. One resident claims that three Tunisians attacked him at night, stabbing him in the arm and injuring his leg with a bottle. He now has a large bandage on his arm and walks with a limp. "We don't want any more illegal immigrants in Lampedusa," he says.

But there are plenty who have not had such negative experiences, and who disagree.

The North Africans wanted a better life for their families, one café owner says. Glancing at his daughter, he says that, had he been in a similar situation, he "might have come to Europe, too. We've grown up in a fortunate part of the world."

Tourism Worries

Lampedusa's inhabitants want to help these people, he adds, but at some point they just won't have the strength to do so anymore. He believes the government needs to take action, but laments that it is "far away" in Rome.

The tourist season is still weeks away in Lampedusa, but hotelier Maurizio Palmeri is already worried about how the latest influx of refugees will affect business. "If tourists see the refugees on TV," he explains, "they might not come here anymore."

Lampedusa's turquoise waters and hidden bays are what usually draw vacationers to the island. Tour operators promise "warm light and wheeling seagulls" and a "one-of-a-kind, unforgettable holiday." But, at this time of year, the town's main street looks more like a ghost town, with many of its buildings shuttered up and some of the store windows papered over.

A stroll along the harbor quickly reveals the other side of Lampedusa. This is where the boats that ferried the refugees to the island are kept. They're simple boats, painted red, white and blue and built for fishing, not escape. There are gaping holes in the wood, planks have been torn off and the railings are covered in rust. The pilothouse on one boat, the HS 392, is a wreck, and a life jacket lies discarded under the bow of the Elemel. Refugees spend a day or more crossing the sea on these vessels before they end up in what the locals call the "boat cemetery." They say there are dozens of other rotting boats further inland, slightly hidden from view.

Part of Lampedusa

The Museum of the Immigrants is likewise off the beaten track. It's not much more than a windowless room with a stone floor, but it's full of memories. Objects the refugees have lost or left behind are displayed on wooden boards: a comb, a pot, an ashtray, a telephone book, a mirror, a single sneaker, Korans and Bibles.

"These aren't just objects," says D'Ancona, the cook from Liberty Square. "They're clues that tell us something about people's dreams." She and a few friends found many of the objects on the beach and in the "boat cemetery." Others are items that less fortunate refugees were carrying with them when they died.

D'Ancona and her friends also have a folder full of photographs they have collected. The pictures are washed out from the salt water and yellowed by the sun; only the outlines of faces are still recognizable. Here, a woman smiles shyly into the camera; there, a group of young, confident men flash victory signs. "The pictures are still beautiful," D'Ancona says. "They're memories of lost lives."

She and a friend have run the museum for a few years, scraping together the €400 ($540) in monthly rent themselves. The local government doesn't provide funding.

"All of this is supposed to be kept hush-hush, as if it weren't part of the island," D'Ancona says. "But all of this is part of Lampedusa."

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein


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