Report from Lampedusa 3.10.-6.10.2011

In the past few days the inhabitants of Lampedusa are gradually rediscovering the peace and quiet that has been missing and life on the island is resuming its gentle pace. Many people are asking themselves what happened and to what extent they were responsible. They want to know what were the motivations behind the actions of others but more than anything else they asking questions about the future. Many are convinced that the truce will not hold out for long.
The Imbriacola Centre is still destroyed. It is certain that one of its three buildings will have to be demolished while the future of the other two is unknown. In any case any rebuilding work has not yet got underway. It is possible that it will begin over the next few days. The Centre has remained completely empty except for the Tunisians who arrived in a fishing boat that run into difficulty at sea at the beginning of October. The incident occurred during the closure of the Baglioni Festival. We understand that the migrants were returned back to their own homes the following day, after having been provided with food and overnight accommodation in the Centre. Otherwise, we are aware of a smaller boat of migrants, 29 in total, which arrived during the night between the 5th and the 6th of October on Linosa and a much larger boat which was spotted by the coastguard and accompanied to Porto Empedocle.

The Inquiry into the fire which broke out at the Centre is ongoing. Currently four people have been arrested in connection with the incident. We are also aware of the rather strange fact that one of the Tunisians believed to have actually started the fire, had only arrived in the island the previous day. In any case, rumours had been circulating for a good ten days prior to the event that someone wanted to start a fire in the centre. Furthermore, those who arrived in August had started creating problems in the Centre which had not been experienced previously. Lately the migrants have begun to speak out more heatedly and in greater detail about those who organise the crossings and the dangerous journeys they undertake.

From what we have been told, it would appear that many of the mediators and volunteers who have been working in the past few months have been somewhat lazy in their role and migrants have often received inaccurate information as a means of pacifying the situation. On certain occasion the mediators themselves have found themselves threatened by migrants. This is possibly due to the fact they were believed to be gathering information to pass on to the police. Outside the CIE (Immigrant Detention Centre), it is not an uncommon occurrence for the migrants to be targeted by blatently racist individuals who are only capable of using violent language.

We met the humanitarian worker Alexander George, who is still battling with bureaucracy after 8 months to gain the permission to leave Lampedusa with a vessel which is necessary for his project “Kayak for life”, after the one which he left Tunisia with ran into problems (for further information see or write to Alexander told us his plans to arrive in Brussels with a proposal for new legislation which is shared by other anti-racist organisations. He aims to unite all groups working in the field to fight for a law to provide migrants with greater justice and an improved reception system. He would also like to get in touch with the organisers of the flotilla which is currently on course for Tunisia. Alexander told us he was very shocked by the level of xenophobia present in Sicily, which according to him, is much more entrenched than in other countries. This could possibly be due to such sentiments being interwoven with the mafia subculture and attached to concepts such as “roba” and the control of the “cosa nostra” territory. Alternatively, it could be the result of the fact that Sicily is an island where there is a fear of contact with different cultures.

We also spent time seeking to understand the opinion of the Arabs who are currently on Lampedusa. An Italian- Moroccan mediator who we befriended maintained that the reception which had been provided for the Tunisians between March and April had been unparalleled. He had been sincerely moved by the extreme generosity and maintained that it is difficult to find such levels of humanity in other places. A Tunisian shop keeper told us about ten year relationships between Tunisian and Lampedusan families, sometimes involving marriage. He apologised for not knowing who he would vote for in the upcoming elections as he did not know who was running. He even offered to help us if ever we wanted to go to Tunisia to document what had happened or to promote cultural exchanges.

A young Tunisian who had refugee status, told us, however, of his wish to leave Lampedusa. He stated he would not return either unless it were to see friends or residents who had helped him. He wanted to go to France or Germany to make some money and then after return to Tunisia where he had a business project. He condemned the behaviour of many women who, according to him, were “too free” with men and hoped that in his country in the future penalties for crimes such as stealing would become more severe, as written in the Koran. There were conflicting opinions on the war in Lybia. There were those who retained that the most important thing was to keep a distance from the USA and Israel and that armed intervention from the French would benefit the Tunisian economy, even though they claimed to be anti- capitalist; and there were those who saw every type of operation as a form of occupation. They nonetheless hoped for a fairer political system in the near future, possibly similar to that in place in Turkey, and believed that in the future Tunisia would be a richer country. Everyone we spoke to was pleased that the brother of Ben A’li’s wife had been arrested in Bari and they maintained that the Trabelsi family, or more precisely the family of Ben A’li’s wife were largely responsible for corruption within the country.

Daniela Caldarella