The Fires of Lampedusa

Since 2002, Lampedusa has been not simply an island but a frontier for political sport that is larger than the territory and its inhabitants have been able to bear.

Starting in 2004, collective repatriation techniques have been openly experimented with by the island’s small airport and associated detention center, called detention and repatriation center (CPT). These plainly violated all international conventions and internal rules then in force, with return flights first on military and then on civilian aircrafts commanded to return the migrants directly back to Libya.

It took a journalist, Fabrizio Gatti, in disguise as a migrant, to uncover what was taking place within the airport detention center. It was in those years that the island was returned to a process of militarization, not in defense against a hypothetical Libyan threat, but to block the migrants who landed there and remove anyone who demonstrated solidarity with them. A solidarity that persisted among residents nevertheless.

In 2007, the Morcone Plan contributed to a rapid evacuation of the migrants who continued to land on Lampedusa, with airplanes that transferred new arrivals to various reception centers located throughout the Italian regions within 24-48 hours. But once the Lega party took over the Ministry of the Interior, that plan was abandoned and effort was diverted toward illegal “push-backs” to Libya, such as those ordered by Maroni on May 6th, 2009 to the patrol boat Bovienzo of the Guardia di Finanza, for which Italy was sentenced for violations in 2012 by the European Court of Human Rights in the so-called Hirsi case.

Up until 2011, even as the bulk of the landings occurring in Italy was concentrated on Lampedusa, the attitude of the population – quite heterogeneous and composed partly of entrepreneurs from the north, as well as hundreds of soldiers whose ranks expanded in this time through Frontex – remained largely supportive. When in 2011 the Berlusconi regime decided to block all the migrants on the island in response to the Arab Spring, migrants who at the time were mostly Tunisian, Lampedusa underwent the concentration of over 5,000 people in a phase that concluded after a few months with the fire at the Contrada Imbriacola reception center, with the protests of foreigners bivouacked on all parts of the island, with the counter demonstrations from some groups of residents, and ultimately with the transfer of migrants to different regions and the emptying of the Center.

Then came the massacre of October 3rd, 2013, followed a few days later on October 11th by the capsize of a boat that had been shuffled for days between Italian and Maltese authorities, who each denied responsibility and failed to promptly deploy rescue operations. In 2014, following these massacres, Operation Mare Nostrum was launched and all people rescued during this time disembarked at the main Sicilian ports without overwhelming the small island of Lampedusa.

The same occurred in the aftermath of the massacre on April 18th, 2015 when boats from Frontex (TRITON mission) and Eunavfor Med (Operation Sophia) disembarked the shipwrecked they rescued, again as part of SAR activity in coordination with the NGOs, at the ports of Palermo, Trapani, Pozzallo (Ragusa), Augusta (Siracusa), Catania, and sometimes even at ports in Calabria and Puglia. Protests ensued among the workers of the reception center in response to the prospect of its closure and their dismissal. The reception center of Contrada Imbriacola and its associated activities became, along with tourism, an economic game that fueled ever more consistent financial flow, even when the facility functioned as “empty-by-full”. Many hotels and restaurants on Lampedusa operated year-round, well beyond the tourist season, thanks to the constant presence of a steady number of military personnel.

As of 2016, the European Agency for the Control of External Borders (Frontex) had stationed twenty police officers on the island and begun using the airport as a base for surveillance missions on the central Mediterranean.

The European Court of Human Rights’ condemnation of Italy for the Khlaifia case in December 2016, for the incidence of arbitrary detention in the center of Contrada Imbriacola dating back to 2011, did not push the government authorities to close the facility or to use it only for short periods as a first reception center, for the purpose of completing rescue missions of migrants at sea.

The fires at the center of Contrada Imbriacola then repeatedly occurred until 2018, for instance in May 2016 when the attempt was made to utilize the facility, which had never been restructured in any serious way, as a detention center. Still, the location of the hotspot (in a basin at the center of the island) and the relative decline in arrivals on the island (thanks to the efforts of the NGOs which, at the direction of the Central Command of the Coast Guard [IMRCC] received the indication of Place of Safety [POS] at other Sicilian ports), mitigated the climate of tension – which in any case grew whenever the transfers of the shipwrecked who landed on Lampedusa slowed or stopped altogether.

In the meantime, a wide front of solidarity consolidated among citizens, supported by the local parish, which still provides assistance in occasions of the landings that continue to occur, albeit at relatively contained numbers compared to the past.

2. The situation appeared to change in the face of the attack on NGO boats at the end of 2016. We all remember the seizure of the Iuventa, a humanitarian ship of the German NGO Jugend Rettet, on August 3rd, 2017, and in the years to come every effort was made to prevent landings at Sicilian ports of those rescued from shipwrecks on the high seas. With the seizures of humanitarian ships, and with the refusal to indicate a safe port of landing until the security decree imposed by Salvini in June 2019, to give legislative coverage to the illegitimate practices that had been adopted since June 2018 (the Aquarius case), the central Mediterranean was abandoned and so-called autonomous landings resumed. Contributing to this, meanwhile, government orders forced rescue boats of the Italian Coast Guard and the means of the Guardia di Finanza to operate only within the limit of territorial waters, no more than twelve miles south of Lampedusa.

It is evident that this reduction of the emergency vehicles along the Libyan and Tunisian routes favored the inevitable arrival of a large number of people fleeing the conflict in Libya and the conditions of extreme poverty in Tunisia – a number that was, however, quite low in comparison to the registered arrivals between 2013 and 2017 (a reduction of 90%). The “autonomous landings” caused a crisis for the dilapidated system of reception on Lampedusa, worsened by the fact that over the years the transport situation had not improved and transfers to Porto Empodocle were made randomly. Nobody considered resorting to air lifts for these transfers, as had been implemented in 2007 with the Morcone Plan, which could have decongested the island in a matter of hours.

Particularly in the winter months, the Ministry of the Interior continues to consider Lampedusa as a border island from which to block migrants indefinitely, and the situation contributes to continuous daily escapes from the center of Contrada Imbriacola that fuel the unrest of a part of the population, worried that these escapes might threaten tourism, or constitute a danger to public wellbeing.

When “the war against the NGOs” was largely exacerbated by the media, influenced by hateful sketches of the situation coming from the right-wing government, the resulting administrative provisions and decrees triggered a violent reaction in a small part of the population towards those who, in compliance with international conventions established by the Court of Cassation last February, had responded to the fundamental duty of saving human lives at sea.

The footage of the threats hurled at Carola Rackete upon his arrival at Lampedusa with the Sea Watch ship in August 2018, and the calls for his arrest which came to be granted by Minister of the Interior Salvini, ignited the climate of Lampedusa like a tank of gasoline to a fire, and led to a disintegration of the social body that would never be restored. Perhaps if the judiciary had intervened to condemn those threats, in the presence of so many witnesses and police officers, the situation now would not have deteriorated to the point of the recent bonfire of the boats.

The fires witnessed simultaneously in two different parts of the island yesterday, certainly the malicious result of careful orchestration, are to be linked to that gust of hatred that swept Lampedusa in 2018 and that in recent months has ushered a series of grave and underestimated episodes, such as the presence of protesters on the dock of the port to prevent the disembarking of a patrol boat of rescued migrants and the defacing of the Gateway to Europe, a symbol of Lampedusa.

Even if we acknowledge the real exasperation produced by the “autonomous landings” – a direct consequence of the interministerial Decree of April 7th, 2020, which defines Italian ports as unsafe and prevents the disembarking of those rescued from shipwrecks off foreign private ships – there is no justification for the burning of these abandoned boats.

It can’t simply be the “anger” of some islanders behind the malicious fires that were set on the eve of a government official’s visit, fires that also put the health of Lampedusa’s inhabitants at risk, polluting the air with dioxin, which will not be easy to remove promptly. For some time, moreover, someone must have had the idea that the problems afflicting the island could have been addressed with fire, as demonstrated last year with the fire set at the waste collection center.

In Lampedusa there are no “boat cemeteries” of migrants but accumulations of boats abandoned in different places, even amid houses. And there is ample wreckage in the port to hamper dockings. These boats should have been demolished and removed years ago. Yet not all the boats on which migrants have arrived, long abandoned on the ground, were mere wrecks.

That “fire on the ground” was also set to boats that in some cases had been preserved in the Ponente area, collected and protected in an open-air museum exhibition near the “Garden of Memory,” a place dedicated to the 366 victims of the shipwreck of October 3rd, 2013. It has served as a symbol to remind us of the many tragedies related to migrations at the Lampedusan coast (the most recent in November of last year), that mark like a brand a community that is now fragmented and perhaps now lacks a common sense of peaceful coexistence. This violence is linked to outbursts of forceful verbal threat against NGO operators, which have not been taken seriously enough in recent years.

Anonymous threats had also been written to the mayor when he expressed solidarity with the migrants trapped on NGO ships.

Surely the solution to the problem of the autonomous landings is not yet another hotspot ship, or “hospital ship” as some call them, moored in the waters of Lampedusa. A ferry cannot become a ghetto for the quarantine of migrants and a wall to prevent other “ghost” landings on the island – or rather, render the shipwrecked who are still being rescued in the central Mediterranean or those reaching the island independently by boat from Libya and Tunisia even more invisible than the current hotspot center of Contrada Imbriacola allows.

Lampedusa does not need more detention centers and “walls upon the sea” visible from its beaches, and a large ship could in no way remain anchored for more than a few days without access to a port larger than that of the island.

On Lampedusa, due to the configuration of the island, it is rather unlikely one would see the repeated landings of these “ghost” ships; one cannot escape the island and evade police checks. Meanwhile, in most cases, the dilapidated boats are sighted long before entering our territorial waters and rescue and aid are deployed just a few miles from the port.

If there would be a national landings plan, if timely indication would arrive from the Minister of the Interior of a safe point of disembarkment at another, larger port than the one Lampedusa has to offer, the relief could be prepared upon the first warning reports to the Coast Guard Coordination Center of boats in emergency situations of distress in international waters.

We repeat, the “autonomous landings” at Lampedusa have multiplied ever since the NGOs were removed and since the ships of the Coast Guard – which previously operated just 40-50 miles from the Libyan and Tunisian coasts and brought the shipwrecked to disembark at various Italian ports – retreated into our territorial waters.

3. The manipulative game being played over the sound request for a hospital, in the wake of the fires, cannot be played solely on the skin of the migrants who in the current phase of the COVID-19 emergency are looked upon as potential carriers to be isolated or otherwise people of a lower rank.

Lampedusa is in need of a hospital above all for the Lampedusan people, surely not because the migrants who pass through it pose a threat. So far, the suspected positive cases of COVID-19 have involved Italians hailing from Milan and not the shipwrecked arriving from Libya or Tunisia. Furthermore, the hotspot of Contrada Imbriacola has been closed for some time, not for the motives we see pushed today, and it could operate if only the channels of Sicilian rescue operations were timely and the government possessed a national landings plan. Ferries must be implemented to guarantee territorial continuity, not to become means of deportation or centers of detention and isolation.

Lampedusa should be equipped with an infrastructure for which it has been waiting for years and must not once again become a remote outpost on which to experiment with techniques for the containment of human mobility. Those who are rescued at sea or arrive autonomously must be transferred to the hotspot centers or to various reception centers made available by the Italian territory, as quickly as possible, as required by article 10 of the Consolidated Law on Immigration n.286/98.

The shipwrecked who risk drowning at sea, even if they are in international waters, must be reached promptly with all the means Lampedusa has to provide. But it is not sufficient merely to respect the search and rescue obligations deriving from international conventions, or the Italian Constitution for its recognition of the right to asylum.

It is imperative that we isolate those who sow hatred, even if from a great distance to the island, those who divide the people by creating barriers of incomprehension and rivalry with the recent arrivals for accessing those shreds of public services that are, indeed, challenging even for inhabitants to avail themselves of. Citing only the increase in “landings” by percentage, without communicating the precise figures of the arrivals (low for a country such as Italy, especially if compared with the landings between 2013 and 2017), builds a giant frame for the situation that is grounded in disinformation and xenophobia. In Lampedusa and beyond, this framing is finding fertile ground.

In the last few years, when rapid transfers were guaranteed by management, the immigrant presence in the center has not impacted the success of the tourist seasons. Now, in addition to the containment options for those who disembark, “unloaded” on the island after spending days abandoned at sea, this climate of violence is no longer merely verbal, as highlighted by the recent fires, and could compromise not only the physical environment but the internal social fabric and, thus, the future of Lampedusa. Rest assured, beyond the investigations that the judiciary has already opened, the island will find human and civil resources capable of defeating those who exploit the fear of migrants and spread hatred against them and those who assist them. “Migrants are not the island’s problem”, as the parish priest of Lampedusa Fr. Carmelo La Magra expressed clearly.

We will not abandon those who are fighting to enforce the principles of solidarity and the embrace of those in need. In the face of the flames of these recent, harmful fires, many felt wounded and “more Lampedusan” than before, far from the stereotypes that have been constructed with regard to this exceptional strip of European land, so close to Africa.

Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo

*CPT: Centro di permanenza temporanea – Detention and repatriation center

Translation from Italian by Olivia Taibi