EUOBSERVER / LAMPEDUSA – With hundreds of Tunisian migrants arriving every day by boat, the inhabitants of the overcrowded island of Lampedusa over the weekend have staged daily protests in the port, calling on the Italian government to step up the pace of transfers to the mainland.
“We are not against the migrants, not at all. It’s the government in Rome, [Prime Minister] Berlusconi, who is to blame for this situation, it’s absolutely unacceptable,” said one resident, gesticulating in anger.
Some migrants joined the few dozen inhabitants protesting on Sunday in the port of Lampedusa, shouting “We don’t want to be sent back” and “death to the dictator [Ben Ali].”
It was the third consecutive day of demonstrations. But this time it was against gendarmes and riot police who were blocking access to the docks where hundreds of stranded Tunisians were being given first aid and aluminium foil to wrap around their shivering bodies.
“We can’t take them to the reception centre,” says one aid worker, “there is no more room for them there.” With its capacity already at its limit with 850 migrants, the reception centre on the island can no longer cope with the fresh arrivals. The total number of immigrants on the island stands at about 4,000.
On Friday, the locals protested on the dock itself, preventing the coast guard from coming on land with more rescued migrants.
A piece of EU territory just 113 km off the Tunisian coast, Lampedusa is usually home to some 6,000 inhabitants, mostly engaged in the tourism and fishery industries.
According to captain Vittorio Alessandro, spokesman for the coast guard, two more boats arrived by Sunday around with over 300 migrants between them. “It is possible that there are more boats on their way,” he added. A military vessel, promised by the Italian navy to help out with the transfers to the mainland, “had not yet been sighted,” he said.
The surge may not yet be as large as the one in February, immediately after the ousting of Tunisian dictator Ben Ali, but the inhabitants are becoming more tense as it gets closer to the start of the tourist season on which the economy of the island depends.
The mayor of Lampedusa, Bernardino De Rubeis, joined the protests on Sunday, claiming “victory” for not allowing tents and other temporary arrangements to be set up on the island – something that he says could keep tourists away.
“Italy should be ashamed today,” he said, for allowing the migrants to be “treated like animals, urinating in the streets, sleeping under the open sky, in the rain.” “Where is the humanity we are talking about?” he shouted in the loud speakers, blaming Berlusconi and other politicians for dragging their feet.
For the mainland, he argued, a couple of thousand of migrants “is nothing”, unlike for the island, where there is no source of fresh water and the sanitary conditions are worsening by the day.
Migrants in the port had mixed feelings about what was going to happen next.
“I didn’t think Europe would be so unwelcoming. I will not stay in Italy, once on the mainland, I will leave in 24 hours,” says a young Tunisian who arrived on Friday after a 16-hour trip on a boat full with 125 other people.
Using Ali instead of his real name, the Tunisian said he paid €1,000 for the trip and left because “there is no liberty, no democracy – it’s still Ben Ali’s old guard ruling the country.”
A car mechanic, Ali is eyeing “Germany, France or Belgium”, where he hopes to find an employer to “give him a contract and solve his paperwork.”
“If you have a clear idea of what you want, you can get the papers in order,” he said.
EU mission in the back seat
A spokeswoman for the Warsaw-based EU border agency, Frontex, meanwhile told this website that the Italian authorities have not yet asked for help in transferring the migrants from Lampedusa to Sicily, for instance by extending the existing “Hermes” operation set up in February to assist them with the Tunisian situation.
Out of the 20 debriefing experts sent by member states, none of them is based in Lampedusa.
Romain Prevot, a French border official now based in Trapani, northern Sicily, told EUobserver that “initially we were supposed to be in Lampedusa,” but then “for security reasons,” the Italian government decided to deploy them to Sicily and the mainland.
In Trapani, the reception centre, capable of hosting 300 people, is not overcrowded like the one in Lampedusa. On Saturday, there were 230 migrants, almost all Tunisians transferred by plane or ferry from Lampedusa where they first arrived. “We have 20-30 newcomers every day , but then 20 others just leave the place and take their chance as illegals,” Prevot said.
“Most probably they go to France. They have relatives there. They speak the language. At the moment, the only way to repatriate them is on a voluntary basis, because there are no re-admission agreements in force with Tunisia,” he explained.
As for refugees from the Libyan war, “We are expecting them, but none has arrived yet,” Prevot said.
His remarks were confirmed by Libyan authorities on Sunday, as the local state television quoted one security official saying: “Libya has decided not to be responsible over the illegal immigration to Europe.”
The European Commission last year had offered Libya up to €50 million to improve border control and protect refugees.