Tunisian Refugees in Lampedusa 'I Felt Very Near to Death'

They have come in the hopes of finding a better life: In recent days, thousands of Tunisians have landed on the shores of the Italian island of Lampedusa. Many are young men who feel let down by their homeland. They may soon be let down by Europe.


By in Lampedusa

The sea was calm -- a fact which likely saved Chalid's life. He spent 26 hours on the Mediterranean, one of a hundred people packed onto a small boat. He couldn't help being afraid, he says, and hoped that there wouldn't be a sudden storm.

"I felt very near to death," he says.

Now, two days later, he is standing on a dusty street on the Italian island of Lampedusa. He has made it. Chalid wears a dark jacket and jeans, similar to the dozens of young men who stroll past him. Lined with palm trees, the street winds its way towards a refugee reception camp where the roughly 2,000 refugees currently on the Mediterranean island have found shelter. The small reception camp is only meant to house up to 800 people and is hopelessly overcrowded.

A solution to the crisis must urgently be found, the United Nations refugee organization UNHCR says. For the moment, the situation on Lampedusa remains peaceful, but that could rapidly change. The tiny island is around nine kilometers long and three kilometers wide, and home to 6,000 people. That population was almost doubled by the massive influx of refugees last weekend. It looks almost as if the entire island has become a camp. Refugees sit between building ruins and on the beach. They smoke on the playground and on rocks overlooking the sea. They are waiting -- to leave, to get papers, to experience a better life.

Dream Destination Paris

Some locals give the refugees some bread, shampoo or towels. "Thank you Lampedusa," the refugees have written on a sheet draped in front of the refugee center.

"When I saw the coastline I knew that I had reached a new future, a new life," says Chalid, declining to give his second name. He is 30 years old and has been out of work for the past three years. A diploma in computer science is not worth much in poverty-stricken southern Tunisia. Like many unemployed specialists, he does not expect much from his country, a fact that remains unchanged even after the fall of President Ben Ali.

Chalid now wants to head to Paris and hopes that he will soon be on a plane bound for Palermo. Many of those who landed on Lampedusa in recent days are being flown there so that Italian authorities can process their asylum applications. But Chalid is looking for work, not political asylum. The UNHCR has made it clear that those not seeking asylum and whose applications are rejected have a mere five days to leave Italy.

When Chalid hears this, his eyes open wide with fear. "That can't be true. I've never heard that," he says.

Like Chalid, Bires Hasan also wants to make his way to Paris. He is a chubby 15-year old, also clad in a dark jacket and jeans. He paid the equivalent of €1,000 ($1,350) for the dangerous journey, money his family managed to scrape together. He fled because he was frightened. Last month his 20-year-old brother was shot and Hasan still fears Ben Ali's henchmen. A few days ago, his brother-in-law said: "Ok, there's a boat. Let's go."

Fighting for a Place on the Plane

But not everyone who has embarked on the trip to Lampedusa has reached the island. Four people have died in the attempt in recent days -- a monument on Lampedusa stands as a testimonial to the many others who lost their lives before the most recent influx. The monument was unveiled two years ago, a five-meter long steel gate directly on the seashore. Nearby, waves wash onto the stony beach. Shoes, hats, cutlery, broken cups, traces of refugees' journeys, are set into ceramic plates. It is known as the gate to Europe.

Those walking from the sea through the gate are confronted by a bleak, dusty hill. It is only behind the hill that the small colorful boats of the old port can be seen. Here, however, there are nothing but rocks and wind-battered bushes. At this spot, Europe is not particularly attractive.

On Tuesday evening a bus arrives at the reception camp at the end of the long street and picks up 100 refugees to take them to the airport. Destination: Palermo, one step further in their journey to the European Union.

The refugees who are allowed to travel form a line, while the others gather nearby. There are angry shouts and a brief shoving match. Those who finally end up on the bus smile triumphantly and wave as they are driven away.

Chalid is not among them.


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