Tensions on Italian island as refugees arrive after ports closed

Italy shut ports as a ‘safety’ measure but people fleeing war and persecution continue to arrive, upsetting some locals.

Lampedusa boat - reuters
The Italian coastguard patrols the waters of Lampedusa, Italy [File: Mauro Buccarello/Reuters]

Rome, Italy – Tensions are rising on the Italian island of Lampedusa, where dozens of refugees and migrants have continued to arrive despite a recent government order closing domestic ports to international charity refugee boats wishing to dock.

Italian ministers on Tuesday ruled that at least until July 31, for the duration of the national health emergency sparked by the coronavirus pandemic, domestic ports can no longer be considered a “place of safety” – a move which caused concern among some refugee rights groups.

But although international rescue vessels such as the German NGO vessel the Alan Kurdi are being kept offshore by this new measure, small ships setting sail from Libya and Tunisia have continued to arrive towards the Italian coastline.

“We cannot stop migrants: if they set sail, it means that they have to dock somewhere,” Salvatore Martello, the mayor of Lampedusa, told Al Jazeera.

Lampedusa is Italy’s southernmost island, closer to Tunisia than to Sicily. Three wooden boats, carrying 34, 67 and 57 asylum seekers, have disembarked on the island this week.

Italy requires all arrivals to undergo a two-week quarantine.

When the first 34 refugees docked on Monday, before the new restrictions at the ports, they went into quarantine at a local reception centre, which can host a maximum of 96 people in normal times.

But after physical distancing became a requirement for every public facility, there is even less room available.

The next arrivals were made to wait the whole night in the harbour.

Half were subsequently let into the centre, while the others were transferred to the mainland on a regular ferry line.

“Arrivals are not decided by controls in the open sea or on African shores, but simply by the good weather,” Martello said. “And forecasts until Saturday are good.”

Claudia Vitali, a humanitarian worker for Mediterranean Hope, the reception programme run by the Federation of Evangelical Churches in Italy, told Al Jazeera: “The island does not have the capability of receiving migrants in the long run in full compliance with the health protocols required by the COVID-19 emergency.”

Locals protest as more refugees arrive

While the newly arrived refugees waited to be transferred, about 60 Lampedusa locals held a demonstration in front of the town hall.

Martello claimed the protest arose after three African men left the reception centre for a walk, a sight that upset some citizens who were frustrated the newcomers were not abiding by quarantine rules.

Martello said he understood the locals’ concerns and fears more arrivals could inflame tensions further.

Since there is no more room to receive asylum seekers, he has appealed to the Ministry of the Interior to ask for a “welcoming boat” to be permanently docked in the harbour.

“There are health rules that must be abided by to protect our individual and collective safety, and these must be applied to everyone, migrants included,” he said.

Mediterranean Hope has been monitoring the conditions of asylum seekers on the island since the aftermath of the October 2013 shipwreck, when 360 refugees and migrants were believed to have drowned.

Vitali, who has lived on Lampedusa for 10 months, says while preserving the health of refugees and citizens was paramount, closing ports is not a solution.

“The coronavirus won’t stop those escaping from violence and prosecution,” she said.

After a lull in the arrival of boats from Africa at the end of 2019, numbers started to pick up again in the first two months of this year – only to plunge in March as Italy was hit by the coronavirus outbreak.

But the trend could yet reverse again.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), at least six boats have departed from Libya since the beginning of April, carrying roughly 500 people, among them 150 later rescued by the Alan Kurdi.

According to Vitali, Lampedusa, home to about 6,000 people, would not be able to cope with the kind of coronavirus outbreak wreaking havoc in northern Italy.

More than 18,000 people have died in Italy from coronavirus, a disease that has infected more than 143,000 people in the country.

With only 115 infections, the province of Agrigento, which includes Lampedusa, has been relatively spared.

The only citizen found positive on the island was a woman who travelled back from Bergamo, one of the worst-affected areas in the north of the mainland.

Source: Al Jazeera