I thought I’d find a place where I could live in Italy

by Giacomo
Sfelazzo, Askavusa (Lampedusa)

[…] I thought I’d find a place where I could live in Italy, a breath of civilisation, a
welcome that would enable me to live in peace and to cultivate the dream of a
tomorrow without barriers or prejudice. But I have been let down. In this
country, black skin is a limit to a civil integration. Racism also exists here:
it’s made up of arrogance, abuse of power, daily violence against those who ask
only for solidarity and respect. Those of us who arrive from the third world
are contributing to your country, but this seems to carry no weight. Sooner or
later, one of us will be murdered and only then you will realise that we
exist.” (Jerry Essan Masslo).

The murder of Jerry
Masslo (24/08/1989) was one of the main events which led to the passing of the Decree
of 30th December 1990 n.416 in record time. It was an urgent ruling brought in to
address the condition of foreigners, which was later converted into Law n. 39
1990: the Martelli Law. It was an event which mobilized thousands of people to
open an honest and serious debate on the rights of foreigners in Italy. Since
then, some things have changed, but in the past few years the situation
concerning racism and violence against those from different backgrounds has
considerably worsened. Some high profile cases, which have been brought to the
forefront are the massacre of Castelvolturno on 18th September 2008 and Rosarno
in January 2010. Groups of migrants who were being exploited and underpaid were
injured by air rifles. Their protests triggered a “black manhunt”.
During those days, the then Minister of the Interior, Roberto Maroni, declared,
“In the last few years, illegal immigration which has led to an increase
in crime and generated a situation of extreme degradation has been
tolerated.” Thereby, as usual,
identifying the problem with those who have been subjected to years of exploitation
and maltreatment, whilst ignoring the widespread lawlessness in the region and
the absence of government intervention in some areas of Italy. In 2008, Rosarno was a town
undone by mafia infiltration, which had very few squares or communal places for
the residents to meet. These cases seem to have resurfaced in the violence
between a group of Lampedusans and a group of migrants in September 2011, which
we will come back to later. They can also be seen in the recent events in Turin and Florence,
and many others. And, such cases, seem to be on the increase. A further common
feature they share is the inadequate response from the public institutions,
which means it is often left to the good of the people and the anti-racist
groups to deal with the situation alone. They often face extreme conditions, as
in the above- mentioned cases, where communities are silent and subjected to
criminal powers.

return to Lampedusa, the island where we (Askavusa) live and where we have seen
the good and the bad up front. I’m not only speaking about the arrival of the
refugees (which wasn’t always possible to witness) but also in the contrast
with the form of racism that we have seen emerge in part of the local
population. Lampedusa I believe is, now more than ever, the pulse of Italy.
From here, an observer can see the bad things and the good things which occur
throughout the boot of Italy,
concentrated into 25 square kilometres. Immigration is a central theme that Italy and Europe
have to face up to, and Lampedusa is one of the main focal points. The doorway
to Europe, the island where the Madonna di Porto Salvo is worshipped, which has
such an ancient history and which is indissolubly linked to the Mediterranean; today it is a “unsafe port”. How
did this happen?
I will try to be brief
because the answer is complex.

For 20
years, migrants had been passing through Lampedusa, never staying more than a
few days. The situation was referred to as the ‘Lampedusa Model’, even though
there was room for improvement. Then in 2009, the Minister of the Interior, Maroni, with the Berlusconi government, decided to make
Lampedusa a detention centre. As a solution to the ‘immigration problem’, they
flaunted the agreements that had been made with the dictators Ghaddafi and Ben Alì:
those seeking asylum would be rejected to the tune of millions of euro. It was
a practice that Europe had condemned and which
in those days led to the same people who had been involved in assaults on the
Tunisian migrants, greeting the news with joy. Then in 2011, the situation
reached extreme levels with thousands of Tunisians on the streets of Lampedusa
without any assistance. The only presence of
the State was repressive, so it was left up to the Lampedusans
themselves to cope with the situation. And on that occasion many demonstrated
the extraordinary character and sense of virtue that people of the sea carry
inside themselves. Through generosity and love, an unsustainable situation was
sustained for three long months. Yet also on this occasion, those who had
welcomed the policy of rejection, said the people helping the Tunisians had got
it all wrong, that “kind-heartedness was next to stupidity”. Their
voices echoed the “malice” which Maroni
had initiated in his choice of words “invasion” and

Data from
the IOM (International Organisation for Migration) put the number of migrants
who passed through Lampedusa up until the 14th September 2011 at approximately
70 thousand. (Yet post- revolutionary Tunisia received approximately 300
thousand, all without too much alarmism. Egypt
received 220,000, Nigeria
80,000 and Chad
50,000.) Not only having survived those three months, but actually
demonstrating a tremendous capacity to accomplish incredible things and an
unmeasured solidarity, along came Berlusconi with a wave of his magic wand and
made all the migrants disappear. On that
occasion, those who had previously welcomed the rejections, those who had
echoed the malice, used violence, in the presence of the armed forces, to
prevent a group of people who wanted to carry out a peaceful protest to show
their disapproval of the president’s arrival on the island. After this, the
summer months saw the Imbriacola Centre become a concentration camp. Many under
18s were placed in inhumane conditions in another centre to the west (ex- base
Loran) without being able to go out and without being able to receive visitors.
When we reported the situation, nobody wanted to listen, it was not allowed to
be discussed. The most important thing was that the migrants could not be seen
on the streets- as is still the situation. And so, in September, when a group
of Tunisians inside the centre began a hunger strike, began to self-harm, to
protest, everyone knew- but nobody, nobody did anything. This continued up
until the day after the ex- minister La Russa’s visit to Imbriacola on 18th
September, when she declared, “The immigrants in Lampedusa are all doing
well”. There were doing so well, that to celebrate they burnt down one of
the buildings of the centre.

Some of the
Tunisians went out onto the streets. There were near a petrol station. Nearby
there were two gas cylinders, outside a restaurant, none of the armed forces
having had the good sense to remove the cylinders out of reach or out of sight
of the migrants. Two of the Tunisians took one of the cylinders and threatened
to blow it up in front of the petrol station. A group of Lampedusans armed with
bats and stones (a fact that had provoked no police intervention), who had been
watching the whole scene, then threw themselves at the Tunisians. And together
with the armed forces proceeded to beat the living daylights out of the
migrants. From that moment on, Lampedusa was declared an unsafe port and
ironically enough, many of the Lampedusans involved in the incident, those in
favour of the rejections and of the CIE etc, went on to celebrate the
“Madonna di Porto Salvo” on 22nd September, carrying the statue in
the annual procession. In the last month, two vehicles belonging to the
management company running the centre have been set on fire. After the visit of
a European Parliamentary Delegation, which declared that Lampedusa should
return to its former role, one of the warehouses in the Refugee Centre was also
burnt down.

I’m asking
the authorities to reflect on these facts, if they have a conscience. The only
solution to the situation which has been put in place is violence. It is a
violence which is not punished or condemned. On the contrary, it is actually
rewarded. If the public institutions in place in Lampedusa had treated the
situation with greater respect; if there had been some support network to help
the local community and guarantee their rights and duties; if dialogue had been
used as a method to manage the situation instead of the acts of force imposed
by the government and replicated as a model of behaviour by some of the
Lampedusans; if lawlessness had not become widespread and if the abuse had been
stopped and not adopted as a “national” model of behaviour, Lampedusa
would not be classified as an unsafe port, but as a point of arrival for the
refugees and a ground for integration. When I say Lampedusa is the pulse of Italy, I am
also stating that what is accepted here becomes the norm throughout the vast
majority of the country. It is obvious that we would prefer the people to be
able to move about with freedom, with scheduled flights and ferry crossings,
but for the moment this seems an impossibility. The violence has to be
condemned outright. But how can this happen in a country which produces
weapons, which is one of the main producers of antipersonnel mines, which goes
to war, which has parts of the State that collude with criminality? How can a
country allow this to happen and still be credible?

methods have to be re-established. Dialogue has to be used as a means of
mediation. Yet without the example and the support of the public institutions
it will very difficult. The good of the people can be a great stimulus and plays
an extremely important role. I believe that we must, and that it is possible to,
start with Lampedusa. Its role as one of emergency intervention and as a
refugee centre must be re-established, but this time guaranteeing in a
definitive manner, a maximum stay of 3 days for the migrants who pass through
the island. It is also necessary to have a centre for the Lampedusan community,
where they can create an honest human relationship with the migrants. In order
to do this, the violence which has occurred and is still occurring must be
resolutely condemned. A new wave of dialogue and integration must be adopted, one
which manifests non- violence as one of the cardinal principles of our society.
Additionally, there is also a need to carry out preventative measures in
schools and public places and in the behaviour and statements of those who
politically represent the voters of this country.
We hope that as the death of Masslo did, that the deaths of our Senegalese
brothers will at least serve to open the eyes of many people and bring about
cultural and legal change. We hope that all of the Lampedusans are able to reflect on the important
role that Lampedusa has had and can continue to have as a Refugee Centre which is
against any form of racism. We hope that our community can return to its
position of dialogue and understanding. I still believe it is possible to
change, that men and women can improve their own condition. In the same way
that violence will be condemned, dialogue with everyone, especially those with
different experiences from our own, will be promoted.

To the Roma
in Turin, the Senegalese in Florence, the migrants in Naples and the workers in
Nardò and to all who live and work in a minority without community or State
intervention; to all those who are maltreated, we give you our support and our