The untold stories of solidarity: the people of Lampedusa. The Lampedusa Case Study – part III
LAMPEDUSA – Symbol of hope, turmoil and controversy
The Lampedusa Case Study is a series of blog entries all related to the migration issues touching and raised by current and past situations on Lampedusa (Italy.)
Approximately 140 kilometers (75 nautical miles/88 air miles) off the coast of Tunisia, Lampedusa has since many years been a major destination from the North African region for those fleeing their countries in search for a better life. It is reported(1) that within the first nine months of 2011, over 55,000 individuals have been received in Lampedusa after the crossing of the Mediterranean Sea. A crossing that Amnesty International/UNHCR report to have cost the lives of at least 1,500 others in the same year. An island with a population of around 6000 people, it has become a beacon of hope as the entry way to the dream of Europe. And yet it has also become the representation of turmoil and controversy among its own inhabitants as well as within Italy, the European Union, and beyond.
What makes Lampedusa a common destination for migrants leaving primarily from Tunisia and Libya is that it is one of the closest points of entry into Europe.
What many migrants who embark on the journey across the Mediterranean are not aware of, is that it is a small island – 20.2Km2 – and not mainland Europe. It houses a center for receiving migrants (which will in itself be the topic of another blog entry) that is said to have a capacity of somewhere between 400 to 1000(2) individuals, although most generally reported to be able to host between 800 and 850 at most.
What I imagine most of the individuals getting onto to a boat destined for Lampedusa are aware of, is that they are putting their lives at greater risk (also the subject of another blog entry coming soon.)
I had heard many voices and news pieces on the attitude of the local people’s inhumane behavior towards the influx of migrants from the sea, notably of the local authorities turning back boats before they could reach safe land, and at times even purposefully attempting to sink them. I was horrified. And while there is some truth to this (which will also be treated in another blog entry), there is also another truth that nearly nobody speaks of. On the night between the 7th and 8th of May 2011, a boat carrying somewhere between 400 and 600 Africans crashed against the rocks upon approaching Lampedusa. According to the report of someone who was there that night, it was one amongst five boats arriving at the same time, all with difficulties in their approach to land, thus stretching the ability of the Coast Guard to provide assistance. Quickly becoming aware of the situation, the local population of Lampedusa came together and formed a human chain into the sea to rescue the shipwrecked – nearly 500 souls are said to have been saved. (3)
As I searched for references to this wonderful display of solidarity, I did not find very much coverage – two articles on the international (English language) media, and a few articles from the local media, mostly thanks to the award that the Lion’s Club of Palermo bestowed to the people of Lampedusa for their act. (4)
And it doesn’t stop there. In another small article lost amongst the fashion pages of one of my favorite Italian magazines, I read about an equally grand display of solidarity by the people of Lampedusa. It referred to the local mayor taking into his home a family that had recently crossed the sea, a father and three children whose mother had died in the crossing. With this gesture, he appealed to all the local inhabitants to open their doors and do the same, take someone in. I once again searched for this story in other news coverage, and found one. An Italian photographer(5) who had gone to Lampedusa to personally document the situation. Granted, his article is overtly opinionated in some respects, contains a couple of incorrect facts and is published on a website I had not come across before and that I would consider “alternative” for lack of a better word, but I can’t imagine that (and why) he would fabricate the story he said to have witnessed:
“The situation was the opposite of what had been reported: I witnessed charity. I saw the locals taking in these immigrants, feeding and clothing them. Some families hosted three or four immigrants under their roofs, while others let them sleep in their boats or their garages.” (6)
While the situation has been far from all love and roses, as will be covered in the next part of this series, I cannot help but wonder why these positive messages of human solidarity have not captured more of our attention.
(1) & (2) Report on the visit to Lampedusa (Italy), (23-24 May 2011), by the Ad Hoc Sub-Committee on the large-scale arrival of irregular migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees on Europe’s southern shores; AS/Mig/AhLarg (2011) 03 Rev 2; Parliamentary Assembly, Council of Europe.
(5) “Guido Gazzilli (b.1983) is a photographer from Rome. He has extensively traveled throughout Europe, working on stories about subcultures and the independent music scene. In the last years, he has concentrated on documentary style stories focusing mainly on cultural and social issues. He has exhibited and published his work in a number of international galleries and magazines and he has been awarded several times. Currently he is working on different personal projects.” Source: http://www.luzphoto.com/author.php?authorCode=gazzilliguido