More than 52,000 would-be migrants have landed on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa in 2011. Roughly half of the arrivals are young Tunisian men looking for job opportunities in Europe. Most of the others are Sahelians, sub-Saharan Africans or South Asians fleeing the violence in Libya. In many cases, they were forced onto boats by Libyan soldiers, as part of the “invasion” Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi promised should his rule come under NATO attack. [1] The staggering number of arrivals does not include the estimated 1,500 who starved, suffocated or drowned in the central Mediterranean trying to reach Europe’s nearest shore.

Lampedusa — a rocky, 12-square mile island 70 miles east of Tunisia and 184 miles north of Libya — is home to 5,000 year-round residents who are supported by tourism and a dwindling fishing industry. For the past two decades, the islet has also been a main destination for migrants trying to reach Italy by sea. Each year thousands of people are stranded in open water in overcrowded fishing boats or zodiacs (inflatable motorboats). The lucky ones are rescued by the Italian or Maltese coast guards, or by passing fishing boats. The boat operators sometimes sabotage their vessels to make them less seaworthy and enhance their chances of rescue. The bodies of those who do not survive the journey sometimes wash up on the tourist beaches where police eventually collect them. Most fishermen have stopped reporting the bodies they pull up in their nets to avoid the paperwork.

Conditions on the island for migrants are “austere” (according to a WikiLeaked State Department cable) at best. Until 2007, those who reached the island or were rescued at sea were held at a facility at the airport just south of Lampedusa’s only town before being transferred to larger facilities in Sicily or mainland Italy. Italian journalist Fabrizio Gatti spent a week at this detention center in September 2005 posing as a Kurdish immigrant. His subsequent exposé in L’Espresso described being forced to sit in raw sewage from blocked toilets, sleeping on flea-infested mattresses and witnessing the daily slapping and beating by the guards, members of the carabinieri, Italy’s militarized gendarmerie. [2] The Italian government sought to improve detention conditions in 2006 under the auspices of Praesidium, a program jointly funded with the EU through which representatives of the International Organization for Migration, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the Italian Red Cross are tasked with screening migrants for asylum claims, providing legal advice and supplying humanitarian assistance. (This arrangement has since been expanded to other detention sites in Sicily and Italy.)

The Contrada Imbriacola facility was built outside of town in 2007. Designed for a maximum capacity of 800, it has held as many as 3,000 people, some sleeping on mattresses in stairwells and others outside. In February 2009 detainees protesting overcrowding and abusive treatment started a fire that destroyed part of the facility. In January 2009, a decommissioned NATO communications base on the west end of the island was converted into a facility for women, unaccompanied minors and asylum seekers. Because the site is on Italian military property, lawyers and aid workers have limited access to those detained there. [3]

Prior to 2011, nearly all of the arrivals in Lampedusa had departed from Libya. In 2009 and 2010, Italy drastically reduced the number of arrivals on Lampedusa through a “push back” policy that forced migrant boats to return to Libya. A “friendship pact” signed in August 2008 exchanged Italian military equipment, training and $200 million per year in infrastructure investments for increased security of Libya’s land and sea borders and the transfer of interdicted migrants to Libyan detention facilities. In violation of international laws protecting political refugees, Italian and Maltese authorities escorted ships to Libyan waters or transferred migrants from damaged boats to Libyan ships without conducting identity checks. Human Rights Watch has reported that detainees in Libya — which has no asylum law — have been subject to rampant physical abuse, theft and extortion. [4] By 2010, annual arrivals in Lampedusa had dropped from 24,000 to fewer than 5,000.

The rapprochement with Qaddafi’s regime developed as Italian and EU politics became increasingly hostile to immigration, especially from southern neighbors. Spanish agreements with Morocco and Senegal effectively closed migration routes through Gibraltar and the Canary Islands, while Frontex, the EU’s border control agency, mounted Joint Operation Poseidon to patrol the eastern Mediterranean. (The “friendship pact” included Frontex funds to bolster the securitization of Libya’s land border as well.) Anti-immigrant politics were key to the election of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in 2008; his coalition government’s biggest partner is the Northern League, a party that has organized civilian street patrols in northern cities that target immigrant neighborhoods for monitoring. Berlusconi’s government strengthened laws criminalizing migration (which also affect Roma), increased prison sentences and fines for those convicted of immigration violations, and extended the maximum length of initial detention to 180 days. These policies have transformed Lampedusa from a “door to Europe” into a first and last stop for many migrants.

Political unrest in North Africa, however, has strained the anti-immigration infrastructure. The first voyages of 2011 began after the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s government in Tunisia on January 14. Relaxed border security and the devastated tourism industry had prompted 18,000 people to brave a dangerous winter crossing by the end of March. With the Tunisian government — and its repatriation agreement — in disarray, Italy transferred thousands of migrants to other detention sites, as well as temporary camps, in Sicily and southern Italy. Many were granted six-month work visas in the hope that they would move on to France or elsewhere in Europe, but other EU states refused to recognize the documents. In early April, Italy reached an agreement with the transitional government in Tunis to beef up coastal patrols and accept the immediate repatriation of new Tunisian arrivals, though those already in Italy would be allowed to stay for six months. These permits were extended to the end of 2011 after negotiations in August.

When the armed revolt against Qaddafi’s government began in March, hundreds of migrant workers fleeing Libya further stretched the capacity of Lampedusa’s immigration facilities. Departures from Libya accelerated after NATO began its aerial bombardment, with 27,000 migrants (including several thousand women and children) arriving between April and October. Most of the transport boats were unseaworthy, and overcrowding caused several ships to capsize or sink. Twenty-five men died in July of suffocation or beatings when they were not allowed to leave the hold of an overladen boat. Although Italy brokered a deal with the Libyan National Transitional Council as early as June 2011 reaffirming the agreement to control illicit immigration along the terms established under Qaddafi’s rule, a mass repatriation project has not been established. Most of the migrants who left Libya remain in detention centers in Italy, with uncertain prospects for gaining asylum in Europe.

Relations between Lampedusa residents and migrants have deteriorated considerably since early 2011. In previous years, Lampedusans often participated in rescue missions and mayor Bernadino de Rubeis criticized the government’s “push back” policy. The humanitarian crisis on the island over the past ten months has converted anger at the government’s immigration policies into hostility toward migrants. On September 20, Tunisian detainees protesting forced repatriations started a fire at the Contrada Imbriacola center. Hundreds of migrants fled and made their way to the town where they spent the night outside. The following day, clashes broke out in town between police and protesters. Island residents pelted migrants with rocks as they tried to escape attacks from riot police; Rubeis told the media it was a “war scenario” while brandishing a baseball bat. [5]

After the violence in September, detainees on Lampedusa were evacuated within a few days. Some were deported to Tunisia, others were taken to detention centers in Sicily and several hundred were held on floating prisons at the port of Palermo for days before being transferred to more permanent holding facilities. On October 1, Italy declared Lampedusa’s port unsafe, directing all intercepted migrant boats to Sicily for docking. Only one boat is known to have left Libya since Qaddafi’s death on October 20: A vessel carrying 50 migrants sent distress signals on November 8 and 9. At press time, the boat had not been found.

For the time being, it seems, Lampedusa’s door is firmly closed.


[1] International Herald Tribune, March 8, 2011.
[2] Fabrizio Gatti, “Io, Clandestino a Lampedusa,” L’Espresso, October 7, 2005. Thanks to Pino Marchetti for locating Italian-language sources.
[3] Claire Rodier, “Fact-Finding Mission in Lampedusa, February 25-27, 2009,” Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, April 15, 2009.
[4] Human Rights Watch, Pushed Back, Pushed Around (New York, September 2009.
[5] Yasha Maccanico, “Italy: Fire and Loathing in Lampedusa,” Statewatch, October 17, 2011, p. 1.

How to cite this article:

Amanda Ufheil-Somers "Lampedusa," Middle East Report 261 (Winter 2011).

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