Postcard from Lampedusa: ‘invisible’ migrants as campaign propaganda

LAMPEDUSA — The double-decker boat slowly approaches the dock as Italian rock music plays. It is a little after 9 p.m. and the air is warm and windy. The many people on board gather bags, shoes and towels and head for the exit.

“Good, we had a great time,” say two tourists from the northern Italian city of Bergamo, as they board the scooter parked at the end of the pier.

The evening cruise lasted four hours: it included a visit to the most beautiful beaches, dolphin watching, an aperitif with a DJ set and food before returning. It was a long party on the sea, one of the innumerable attractions of the island of Lampedusa, which is still full of tourists even at the end of summer.

This image may seem out of place for an island that has become synonymous with migration. But Lampedusa, a 22 square kilometer island closer to the African coast than the Italian mainland, remains a popular spot for Italian holidaymakers, especially in summer when there are direct flights from Rome and Milan.

But in Italy, the question of immigration to the island is returning to the center of political debate as the country prepares to vote at the end of September.

The hotspot

Not far from there, another boat recently docked at another dock: it is a patrol boat from the Guardia di Finanza, the Italian branch of the police in charge of financial crime and smuggling. On board are 20 migrants from Tunisia, including four minors. The first to disembark, limping, is a tall, thin boy. He walks slowly up the ladder touching his knee.

The police, cultural mediators and a few volunteers are waiting for him, giving everyone a glass of water, juice and biscuits. Another boy slumps down for a few minutes, holding his head, then gets up and lines up with the other traveling companions who have just disembarked.

Migrants do not exist.

Together they board the white bus waiting for them at the end of the quay, cross the city and, passing restaurants full of vacationers, they arrive at the Contrada Imbriacola center, the initial reception center, better known as “hotspot”. The facility that houses them is outside of town; they will remain there until the day they are transferred to the mainland or repatriated.

On this island which symbolizes migration in Italy, migrants do not exist. They are a constant but invisible presence: from the hotspot you cannot exit and only security and reception staff can enter. Even journalists are not allowed there.

Detention, not reception

Until 2019, thanks to a hole in the fence, it was not uncommon to meet freshly arrived migrants, especially around the church, where the priest shared the free WiFi to allow them to communicate with the members of their family left behind. When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, the netting surrounding the center was reinforced to prevent the spread of the virus.

“This place looks more like a detention center than a place of first reception. It is constantly watched by the police,” explains Angelo Farina, one of the two doctors at the hotspot.

The procedure after disembarkation is the same for everyone: swabbing, photosignalling and pre-identification.

“Our job is to do proper medical screenings to identify vulnerable cases and then transfer the clinical information of each migrant to the second reception doctors. But in the summer, with the increase in arrivals, it is difficult for us to operate. The whole system is designed in an emergency configuration.Every year, the same management problems occur even if few people arrive.

hard numbers

Between January and August 2022, 57,168 migrants arrived by sea in Italy, an increase from 2021 (when there were 39,410). But a sharp drop from 2016-2017, the years of the greatest influx of refugees to Italy and Europe, when 115,068 and 99,119 people arrived on Italian shores respectively.

In fact, the number of arrivals in August in Lampedusa was similar to last year: 5,425 arrivals in 176 landings, compared to 5,210 arrivals in 189 landings in 2021. From August 18 to 25, due to strong winds of mistral, no one has landed.

From August 26, as sea conditions improved, as many as 40 to 50 barges arrived daily. This situation has again produced overcrowding at the centre, which has a maximum capacity of 350 people but must sometimes accommodate more than 1,000 if people cannot be transferred to facilities in other Italian cities.

Landing of Salvini

Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right Northern League party, made a surprise return to Lampedusa on August 31. He had already visited the island at the beginning of the month to inaugurate his electoral tour. This time, he once again visited the interior of the Contrada Imbriacola center, accompanied by the deputy mayor of the island, Attilio Lucia, a member of his party.

Following the same pattern as during his first visit, he expressed his solidarity with the police officers working in the establishment, did not speak to the migrants present, but only included them in a few video selfies, pointing out that they are sleeping at cramped and that “they all have cell phones.” He then denounced the “unworthy conditions”, which have nevertheless been the same for months.

During his first visit, after a tour of the center, Salvini had also toured the most beautiful coves on the island aboard the Gamar, the pleasure boat that first came to the rescue after the sinking of October 3, 2013 in which 368 people died. .

We do not want Lampedusa to be exploited for electoral purposes.

Sitting in front of his ice cream shop, Vito Fiorino, former owner of the boat, is pained to remember this morning.

“The tourist season was coming to an end. We had decided to spend the night with friends on the boat. At dawn, we woke up to return to the port when we heard noises in the distance. It sounded like seagulls We got closer and never We expected to see so many bodies in the water near the shore After calling for help and starting to pull up people, living bodies, dead bodies The boat is cleared to transport nine people, we managed to bring in 47 survivors.

For four years Fiorino couldn’t talk about the experience, then he sold the boat and today he goes to schools to talk to children about migration.

“When the photos of Salvini on this boat came out, so many people called me, I didn’t know what to say. The Gamar is no longer mine, but it is certainly a symbol. We are still talking about stopping migration, without asking what is happening at sea, without questioning… the detention centers where people are detained.”

Mediterranean hope

“The real emergency is for people who cannot get to Lampedusa,” said Giovanni D’Ambrosio, a worker with Mediterranean Hope, the migrant and refugee program of the Federation of Evangelical Churches.

D’Ambrosio has lived on the island for a year and a half and says arrivals have increased in recent months – Tunisian families as well as migrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh working in Libya.

“We spoke to Egyptian children who had been through Libyan detention centers and they were upset: one of the words they remembered and repeated was jalis, sit down, which the jailers were shouting all the time. “, he says.

“We do not want Lampedusa to be exploited for electoral purposes. We believe that the solutions for good arrival management exist. The figures are not alarming. that the establishment is not constantly overcrowded.”

Meloni’s “blockade”

Politicians cannot agree on what to do.

The right-wing coalition (made up of far-right Fratelli d’Italia and the Northern League, as well as Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia) is pushing to stop the arrivals. Salvini wants new versions of security decrees that were enacted under former President Giuseppe Conte’s government but have been ruled partly unconstitutional by some Italian courts.

Giorgia Meloni of Fratelli d’Italia speaks of a “naval blockade”. It makes for a nice election slogan that she endlessly comes up with on social media, but is unenforceable in reality as it would amount to a hostile act of war. Addressing criticism of the idea, she corrected herself and said she meant a “political – not legal – naval blockade”. She explained that the idea is actually to stop the arrivals through a new agreement with Libya, similar to the pact between the European Union and Turkey.

Migrants are the subject of propaganda.

Added to this is the proposal for hotspots in Africa to screen migrants before departure, but the solution is difficult to implement because it goes against the right to asylum, which requires access to the territory of the country. state where you want to ask for protection.

As for the center-left Democratic Party, migration occupies a small amount of print in their manifesto. There is only room for Jus Scholar, the reform of the law to give citizenship to children born and raised in Italy who have attended school for at least five years.

“The most complex, sensitive and controversial issue in contemporary politics is approached with few words and superficially by almost all parties,” explains Gianfranco Schiavone, member of the Association for the Legal Studies of Immigration. (Asgi).

Schiavone continues: “It is the right-wing parties that give the most space to the question, but without any real analysis. They repeat that there are too many migrants, that only legal entries should be authorized, but solutions remain archaic and not in tune with the times. There is no reflection on Italian demography or on the evolution of the phenomenon over the years. No party has a global, real, detailed vision. They use all the same tone and the same language. It is a film that we have already seen: migrants are not subjects bearing rights, but the object of propaganda.”

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