Italy’s Lampedusa caught between solidarity and survival as migration rises

Residents of Lampedusa, whose solidarity earned the island a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016, feel their community needs help too.

A tourist boat tour arrive at a beach
A tourist boat arrives at a Lampedusa beach where two refugee boats were washed ashore [Federica Marsi/Al Jazeera]

Lampedusa, Italy – Fishing, a quintessential Mediterranean industry, has been a historic lifeline for Lampedusa, the touristy Italian island famed for its picturesque beaches and now, Europe’s latest migration crisis.

In the 19th century, sponge diving brought economic security to locals. Business then flourished to produce the island’s famed canned amberjack, tuna, anchovies, mackerel and swordfish, as well as a multitude of fresh fish.

Pietro Riso, a fisherman, feels blessed to have passed on to his two sons “the best job in the world”, but recent dark developments weigh on him.

“We find people at sea – on boats and in the water – and we rescue them,” Riso told Al Jazeera. “At times, we find bodies in our nets.”

Pietro Riso [Federica Marsi/Al Jazeera]
Pietro Riso, a Lampedusa fisherman, says he is tormented by the island’s economic woes and migration crisis [Federica Marsi/Al Jazeera]

In mid-September, a slow procession of rickety vessels entered Lampedusa’s Favaloro pier, each overflowing with refugees and migrants from across the Mediterranean Sea.

Over four days, about 11,000 asylum seekers docked at Italy’s southernmost island – almost double the number of local residents.

Then, the pods on the carob trees disappeared, as did the Indian figs and even the prickly pears. The only hanging fruits sat at the top of the trees, beyond arms’ reach.

Antonio Di Malta, a firefighter and resident of Lampedusa, was leaving for a night out when he spotted a group of men on his field.

“One of them gestured that he was hungry and fell to his knees,” Di Malta said. “His eyes were full of fear – not that I or anyone would hurt him, but fear of I don’t know what. Of hunger, maybe.”

Di Malta and his mother put two large pans on the stove and cooked some pennette, a tube-shaped pasta, for their unexpected guests.

They hailed from Burkina Faso, where two military coups last year left a trail of unprecedented violence.

“When he finished eating, the man took the last pennetta with his fork and raised it to the sky, as if to thank God,” Di Malta said.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the number of arrivals was the highest since 2011. Most boats hailed from Tunisia, despite a new deal signed with Tunis by the far-right government of Giorgia Meloni.

“Tunisia was once a country of destination for many sub-Saharan Africans, but the economic crisis and the mistreatment of Black people have turned it into a transit country,” Flavio Di Giacomo, IOM spokesperson, told Al Jazeera.

Lampedusa, located closer to Tunisia than to inland Italy, has been the preferred port of call for boats departing from the coastal city of Sfax.

According to the IOM, in 2016 – when most boats departed from Libya – about 8 percent of arrivals disembarked in Lampedusa, compared to 70 percent this year.

For local residents, whose proud solidarity earned the island a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016, the surge is worrying.

Many open their homes to the hungry, while restaurants in the island’s main street – the buzzing Via Roma – serve food at no charge, but there is a sense the central Italian government has abandoned Lampedusa as it is again thrust in the midst of a phenomenon much wider than its 20 square kilometres (7.7 square miles).

“Migration is not a problem if managed well, but if it’s not managed it spirals out of control – as it did,” Di Malta said. “And we are all tired.”

‘We risk becoming migrants ourselves’

At the same time, islanders are angered by high fuel prices, which are more than in mainland Italy.

To add to their woes, commercial ships used to transport their produce to Sicily are increasingly tasked with transferring thousands of migrants and refugees to the peninsula, causing delays in departures.

“If the ship arrives the next day, my produce is devalued by 50 percent,” said Riso, the fisherman. “If the delay is longer, my fish is good to feed stray cats.”

At times, a whole day of work ends in financial loss if the nets – which cost up to 3,000 euros ($3,170) – are torn apart by sunken refugee boats that lay on the seabed.

Only about 100 islanders still hold a fishing licence, as residents prefer to work in tourism or find jobs elsewhere in Italy.

Lampedusa’s glistening coast still attracts thousands of Italian holidaymakers every year, but that lifeline has also been imperilled.

“We have zero foreign tourists because they think Lampedusa is where migrants are detained,” Giandamiano Lombardo, president of the hotelier association Federalberghi, told Al Jazeera.

On a normal day, arrivals go unnoticed as they are ferried to a detention centre in Contrada Imbriacola and then to the mainland. But when numbers are too high to be managed in a facility tailored for 400 people, asylum seekers roam Lampedusa’s city centre as the media broadcast yet another “emergency.”

Lombardo said that if the bulk of habitual Italian tourists decided to change holiday destinations, their livelihoods would be in tatters.

“If we lose our economy, we risk becoming migrants ourselves,” he said.

Some residents have already begun selling their properties at a fraction of their real value.

“We fear the mafia is already taking advantage of the situation,” said Lombardo, who also owns a restaurant named after his father and a number of tourist facilities.

“We are asking for help – we ask that those who help are also helped in return.”

Political action

Residents on opposite sides of the political spectrum are split on the way forward, yet on September 16 stood united, side by side, at the port to stop the authorities from unloading a shipload of tents intended for refugees.

Demonstrators blocked the road leading to a former military base, where the government was rumoured to be planning a “tent city” to cope with the surging numbers of arrivals.

A few days later, on September 19, the cabinet approved a decree that allocated funding for “strategic interventions” in Lampedusa linked to the crisis.

Police commissioners for the region of Sicily, which includes Lampedusa, denied any plans to build a permanent reception centre in the former military base, but around 100 residents mobilised to the rallying cry: “They want to take our island!”

Angela Maraventano, who voted for Meloni’s party Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) in the September 2022 general election, was among the protestors.

From her panoramic restaurant, Il Saraceno, her family has watched refugee boats arrive in Lampedusa since the early 1990s. Over the decades, they have served countless free plates of pasta and distributed old clothes kept in store.

In 2007, she was elected deputy major in the right-wing populist Lega, or League, party.

“I didn’t join the League because of the migrants,” she said. “I joined the League because our baker died like a dog with from a heart attack with no help available.”

Maraventano sent out letters to all political parties in Italy, detailing the lack of emergency medical services on the island. The League, headed by Umberto Bossi and known for its scornful description of Italy’s southerners as “terroni”, or peasants, was the only party to answer her plea. “Bossi told me that if I wanted to fight for my land he would give me the tools.”

Angela Maraventano [Federica Marsi/Al Jazeera]
Angela Maraventano says she voted for Meloni, hoping the right-wing leader would solve Lampedusa’s economic woes [Federica Marsi/Al Jazeera]

The restaurant owner has since fallen out of love with the League, now led by Matteo Salvini, and has veered towards Fratelli d’Italia. But one year into Meloni’s government, she says she was let down by the lack of “strong action” and feels “closer to the party from which Meloni’s hailed from”, the National Fascist Party banned after World War II.

“The problem [of migration] can no longer be called an ‘emergency’, the problem is structural because we are paying the smugglers who take advantage of these people,” she said, demanding that the prime minister resign over her failure to fulfil her campaign pledge to enact a naval blockade.

“This phenomenon must be stopped, we must tell smugglers that their days are over by blocking any boats that try to enter our waters,” she said. “And we must tell migrants: Stay in your country and fight for your land.”

Giacomo Sferlazzo, a left-wing Lampedusa-based political activist, dismissed the idea of a naval blockade as an “idiocy”, urging instead for legal migration routes.

When Meloni landed in Lampedusa with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for what Sferlazzo condemned as “yet another catwalk” on September 17, he was among a crowd that blocked the prime minister’s vehicle.

“I spoke to her and she said the usual empty words,” he said. “Which is why I later tore up my voting paper – because I don’t trust the authorities, any of them.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni visit the hotspot, a reception centre for migrants, on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, Italy, September 17, 2023. REUTERS/Yara Nardi
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni visit a reception centre for migrants on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, Italy, September 17, 2023 [Yara Nardi/Reuters]

Sferlazzo and his collective Mediterraneo Pelagie gathered signatures to demand that the funds allocated under the cabinet decree be spent on the island – to pave potholed reads and fix the sewage system – independently of its role as a hub for migration.

While solidarity with asylum seekers is still heartfelt, many fear Lampedusa will once again become a place of detention as it was at the turn of the 19th century, when the new Italian nation-state relegated the unwanted in this tiny stretch of land.

“We’ve been held under emotional blackmail for the past 30 years. If we block entrance to port people will say, ‘You don’t want migrants, you are racists!’, but we cannot live under this pressure much longer or we will all go nuts,” Sferlazzo said.

“I don’t want to leave the island, but what prospects do we have? To work for the Red Cross or cook for the police? This is not what I want for my children.”

Source: Al Jazeera