An evening in the square in Lampedusa

It’s 7 pm, and a group of young Eritrean men and women are sitting silently on the steps in front of the church, holding in paper signs in their hands reading “we are refugees”,and “no to fingerprints”:squeezed up against each other due to the cold weather.

I am passing by, carrying my shopping bags and stop in front of the group to get an idea of what is happening. They are a group of about 200 Eritreans who have been here since beginning of December, refusing for their fingerprints to be registered, as they have the right to request asylum in countries other than Italy, where they would however have to remain if they were to be give their fingerprints here in Lampedusa, Italy’s first Hotspot. This was certainly not a threatening crowd. They blank stares, and weren’t even talking among themselves, but when I smiled and got closer, they reciprocated.

They are fleeing from a criminal regime which forces them to serve in the army for an indefinite period of time, a country which has total control over the press, where a third of the population are illiterate, and where torture still exists. Ithink that if I were in their situation, I would flee too. Suddenly, a man, or rather a whole group of men, walk towards me, and ask for my name. They said they were police, but noone produced any identification.

All the other people who passed by the church with indifference.The Misericordie di Lampedusa, situated right in front of the Church, remains on watch until 8pm, then closes its doors as if it were a clothes shop. No blankets, not a single cup of tea, not even a smile. These past few months I have been working at the disembarkings. I ask myself why in this place — with hundreds of men and women demonstrating generous actions of humanity and charity, providing free help under the watchful eyes of the press, and the parade ofinstitutional bodies, with their signs on display at the harbour, si scenically presented on the evening news — I ask myself where are they now. Aren’t these people on the steps also men and women? Weren’t they also landed at and detained on the island a month ago? Aren’t they asking for help? Does anyone respond? Or is it the case that the refugee who arrives at the pier is stranded here, on this God forsaken island, which represents the Europe’s frontiers, a where anything is possible, even for the parish priest to be asked his details when comes down the steps to join a small group who asked the bakeries to donating the remaining bread at the end of the day? No onehere tonight, no one will make the front page.

Nothing of our human dignity, of men and women, mistreated as much as freedom and democracy; nothing of the future of our children, a dark future, made of laws which trample over other laws which take precedence, from both a historical and moral point of view – the fundamental human rights — which today it seems are no longer recognised. It is a long night, and this eveningthere will be no TV crews.

Witnessed by Mariangela Orlando

Translated by David Hofstetter