Lampedusa: A magnet for migrants

Despite deadly accidents at sea, European leaders are unlikely to discourage illegal voyages by easing asylum laws.

Lampedusa is a rather surreal place.

From a roof-top in the pretty little harbour – full of bobbing white fishing boats in a dark blue sea – we watched the Coast guards bring in another group of tired and frightened African migrants that they had rescued 100 miles to the south.

Besides me, two elegant Italian women in bikinis soaked up the last of the autumn sun, oblivious to the drama below.

At nearby cafes, elderly local men swapped gossip and slowly sipped espressos, as if nothing on their island had ever changed.

They paid no attention to the groups of Syrian and Eritrean youths who wandered past, all kitted out in the regulation tracksuits supplied by the island’s one overcrowded reception centre.

Some of these new arrivals have hopeful expressions.

They crowd round a payphone, and shout greetings down the line to distant relatives in Damascus and Asmara.

Others, who have been on Lampedusa for longer, have a more weary appearance.

Wajdi, from Syria, has already been here for 13 days and answers my queries with an air of faint irritation.

Evidently, I am not the first journalist to ask him intrusive questions. He paid a smuggler 1,500 Euros for a place on an overcrowded boat from Libya.

“That was the price they made each person pay,” he explains, before adding with a sardonic smile, “but they allowed babies to go for free”.

Fortunately, Wajdi’s boat was found by the Italian coast guards after 23 hours at sea.

He describes himself as “a pizza chef and decorator”, and dreams of reaching France or Germany to look for work.

Quirk of geography

Lampedusa is a tiny place – barely eight square miles of scrub and barren rock in the middle of the Mediterranean.

By a quirk of geography – it’s much closer to Africa than it is to mainland Italy – it has found itself caught up in an extraordinary international drama.

This year, more than 13,000 migrants have arrived here, more than twice the island’s indigenous population.

No wonder Lampedusans are desperate for more help from their government in Rome and the EU.

And yet the overall picture of migration into Europe is more complex than often portrayed.

The tragedy in the Mediterranean makes for dramatic pictures, and gets the headlines.

But in 2012, the EU countries which handled the most asylum applications were all in Northern Europe – Germany, France, Sweden and Britain.

Frontex, the EU agency which tries to control migrant flows on the Union’s frontiers, says “the single biggest entry route for migrants into the EU is via international airports”.

People arrive legally, with valid travel documents, and then overstay their visas.

This helps explain why the pleas from countries like Greece, Malta and Italy for more assistance to deal with migrants only get so much sympathy at European summits.

Per capita, the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland and Ireland accept more asylum seekers than Italy, as The Economist recently argued.

And, contrary to popular perceptions, more Russians than Syrians applied for asylum in Europe in 2012, and more Serbians than Somalis.

Electorate’s hostility

No European leaders want to see more people drowning in the Mediterranean, but they also sense the hostility from their own electorates towards allowing more migrants to come to this continent.

Next May, in elections for the European Parliament, anti-immigrant parties are likely to perform strongly in several countries.

So what solutions are possible to this crisis?

Some experts argue that if it were easier for would-be migrants to apply for asylum to Europe in their own countries, they would not have to embark on dangerous journeys across deserts and seas in the hope of reaching Italy or Greece.

Others point out that in the long run, economic aid and the lifting of trade barriers will make it less likely that people will want to leave African, Middle Eastern and Asian countries in the first place.

But, in the short term, not much is likely to change.

The war in Syria rages on, Somalia is still lawless and dangerous, and Eritrea’s harsh government shows no sign of relaxing its grip.

So people from these countries and others will risk everything to reach Europe in the months to come.

And the people of Lampedusa, whom, by and large, have reacted to the influx of migrants with good grace and tolerance, are braced for many more arrivals.