Here on Lampedusa, the crisis we face alone is a humanitarian one – not a migrant invasion

It is nothing new for Lampedusa to be waved about politically as the symbol of a supposed European migrant invasion. Yet the latest operational emergency, in which up to 15,000 people arrived on the island in a few days, could have been foreseen and properly responded to by a country of Italy’s size. The situation here is a crisis only because we have a population of just 6,000.

Lampedusa experienced a similar wave of boat landings in 2011 after the Tunisian revolution. Then, large numbers of people crossed the Mediterranean to flee the political unrest after the regime’s collapse – and the population of the island doubled in a matter of weeks, causing a political outcry.

At the time, Silvio Berlusconi’s government, which had done a deal with Libya to halt migrant departures, threatened to repatriate all Tunisians directly from Lampedusa. For two months, as the political grandstanding played out, migrants and islanders alike were abandoned by the Italian authorities, many in the most inhumane conditions. The community, the church and NGOs replaced the state, distributing meals and clothing.

The crisis in 2011 was very similar to today’s both in terms of conditions in north Africa (then it was the Arab spring; today Tunisia is in economic crisis, while Morocco has been hit by an earthquake and Libya by disastrous floods) as well as in terms of Italian politics, with ministers from the populist League running the interior ministry. And we seem to have learned nothing.

The same remedies are being promoted: agreements with African dictators to stop departures instead of serious long-term migration policies. The same hardline promises are also being made about repatriation, which even those making them must know can not realistically be carried out.

People wait on the road that leads to Lampedusa’s reception centre for migrants.
People wait on the road that leads to Lampedusa’s reception centre for migrants. Photograph: Roberto Salomone/The Guardian

In the most recent surge, approximately 11,000 people reached the island in boats over four days, with a peak of 5,000 on 12 September alone. At one point, there were 60 small boats crammed full of people in the port, all lined up as if waiting at a motorway tollbooth. On the quay, fishermen were saying Lampedusa had been abandoned: “All summer the TV reporters were here talking about the increase in landings, but we have been left to cope alone; what can we do alone?”

Indeed, since August, arrivals have doubled, compared with 2022, and tripled compared with 2021 – so for the islanders the absence of preventive measures is unforgivable.

Some of the newly arrived boats ran aground on the island’s beaches, crashing into rocks and capsizing along with their human cargo, requiring dangerous rescue operations at sea. Two infants died in the sea – and on the shore, ambulances were unable to assist everyone who needed help: dehydrated women who were unable to breastfeed their babies or youths with injuries and burns covered in flies.

Thousands were crammed into the migrant arrivals “hotspot”, or designated frontline reception centre, which is intended for just 400 people, in anything but humane conditions. Thousands more had to wait for hours under the sun on the boiling asphalt of the Favaloro pier, cooled only with water cannon and contained by police in riot gear.

The Italian Red Cross, which runs the hotspot, raised an alert, saying it did not have enough capacity to distribute water and food to everyone. A humanitarian emergency was, in other words, managed like a national security issue, in the shameful absence of civil protection resources being made available for people’s basic needs. The only humanitarian interventions came from the church, which distributed meals with the help of citizens, volunteers and even tourists.

One group of Lampedusa residents staged a protest outside the town hall, blocking a Red Cross bus full of migrants to show their opposition to the rumoured setting up of a migrant reception camp. Incredibly, the protest was led by the island’s deputy mayor, Attilio Lucia, a member of Salvini’s League party.

The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, and Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, in Lampedusa, 17 September 2023.
The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, and Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, in Lampedusa, 17 September 2023. Photograph: Cecilia Fabiano/AP

The pressure on the island finally eased last Saturday, just in time for the arrival of the Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, and European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen. This was a visit that proved to be as detached from both migrants and local inhabitants as it was from understanding the reality of the situation – and providing adequate responses. The message that reached Lampedusa residents was that nothing is going to change either in Brussels or in Rome, and consequently not in Lampedusa either.

The EU will continue hypocritically with its closed border policies, even though a further 28,000 deaths in the Mediterranean have been counted in the 10 years since 368 died in the 2013 tragedy off Lampedusa – prompting the then commission president, José Manuel Barroso, to declare “never again”.

The government in Rome will not demand that its friends in Poland and Hungary shoulder their fair share of the responsibility for migrants and asylum seekers. It will not send naval ships to carry out rescues in the waters off the south of Lampedusa or to transport people to other, bigger Italian ports, which would lessen the impact on the socio-environmental fragility of the island. Lampedusa residents have long requested such an initiative, similar to Mare Nostrum, the humanitarian operation launched by former prime minister Enrico Letta after the big Lampedusa shipwreck in 2013.

Meloni’s government will instead insist on the disastrous EU “cash for migrants” agreement with Tunisia and on destroying the existing Italian system of migrant reception, staking everything on measures that have already proved unsuccessful in the past: building more repatriation centres for failed asylum seekers and extending to 18 months detention times for people deemed “illegal” migrants. The municipal administration of the island, however, will get €45m from the government as part of an action plan.

What will become of the Mediterranean, of the suffering humanity that crosses this sea, and of my island, which for so long has shown courage and humanity? Lampedusa, a microcosm traversed by a thousand contradictions, has already changed, subjugated by fear and deception, despite the fact that tourism has grown alongside the boat arrivals.

And what future are we building for Italy? How will we fill the demographic deficit and the need for an immigrant workforce that companies estimate will need to be around 833,000 by 2025? It seems clear that the campaign for the next European elections began last week in Lampedusa, a campaign launch marked by staged and irrational fearmongering. In the absence of anything but counter-solutions that are impractical, useless and unjust, public debate needs to be enriched with serious communication. The message must be that migrants will not be the only victims of this increasingly hysterical climate.