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Italian tourist island is magnet for immigrants

August 30, 2005

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LAMPEDUSA (Italy): “Do you know where you are? Lampedusa — it’s a little, little island.” Not the usual greeting to tourists at Italy’s most southern point, but the 123 people crouched on the dockside in the dark are not tourists.

The mostly young, black men, a few Arabs and a handful of women squint up at the volunteer medic who tries to reassure them that they are safe after their two-day voyage from Africa crammed in an open fishing boat.

The locals, who live on fish and tourism, are used to the uninvited guests. The 182 km of sea between Lampedusa and Tunisia is a busy route for illegal immigrants.

For every 10 tourists who fly to Lampedusa from the north, at least one “clandestino” or illegal immigrant arrives from the south by sea — 8,000 every year, according to the Coastguard.

Michael, a 26-year-old who says he is from Liberia, the West African country devastated by almost two decades of on-off civil war, stares straight ahead. Like the others, he carries no possessions other than the clothes he is wearing.

When asked why he has come to Lampedusa, he replies: “There’s a problem in my country.”

Across the bay, loud music entertains the more welcome visitors: young, suntanned Italian holidaymakers, sipping midnight cocktails, unaware of the foreigners ordered to sit in tight rows before being marched onto a minibus and driven away.

On the island’s only main street, Via Roma, some restaurateurs and hotel owners say Lampedusa’s notoriety as the “immigrant island” is hurting business.

Anti-poverty campaigner Bob Geldof told a British television chat show in June that dead bodies of immigrants washed up daily on the island’s beaches and that there was no room left on the island to bury them — a damaging myth, say locals.

“I have been here since 1997 and we have never had a dead body on a beach,” said Coastguard chief Michele Niosi, adding that fishermen sometimes found corpses in their nets.

No one knows how many immigrants die on the journey from Africa. On August 16, one 20-something man drowned when he got tangled up in a rope as he tried to swim to shore.

A handful of roughly made wooden crosses mark the graves of unidentified immigrants in Lampedusa’s cemetery, a reminder of the perilous journey taken by the 123 people on the dock.

Their 15-metre (50-foot) wooden fishing boat landed on the nearby island of Linosa, packed with 195 people — too many to be brought in a single Coastguard vessel to Lampedusa where Italy has set up a holding camp by the airport.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) doctor Claudia Lodesani gave the new arrivals water, biscuits and basic medical care; a few were suffering from dehydration and sea-sickness — the only shade on their boat came from a ragged piece of straw matting.

Some stood up to stretch. “Boys, sit down, please,” said the guard in broken English.

He could easily have been overpowered by the crowd, but the immigrants were passive and had nowhere to run to on this 20-square-km island, 330 km south of Sicily and geographically part of the African continent.

Many of the new arrivals were reluctant to talk.

Asked if he spoke English or French, one shook his head and said “Hausa”, which is spoken in Niger and parts of West Africa.

People who deal with the immigrants every day say most have trekked across the Sahara Desert. Niosi says he has heard they pay human traffickers $1,000-$5,000 for their journey.

They arrive without identity papers and many say they come from war zones — one, calling himself Zani, said he was from Iraq — which could improve his chance of getting asylum.

The interior ministry says of the 3,000 immigrants to arrive on Lampedusa between autumn 2004 and March 2005, 1,647 were flown back to Libya — the starting point for many crossings — under a fast-track repatriation deal with Tripoli.

Amnesty International and the UN refugee agency UNHCR have criticised the Libya transports.

“We don’t think people should be sent back to Libya even if they are not found to be refugees because they may face mistreatment there,” a UNHCR spokesman said.

Immigrants are held in the holding camp by the airport before being flown to Libya or to mainland Italy for processing.

Reporters are not allowed to visit the cluster of containers secured by barbed wire and armed guards, designed for some 190 people. The camp sometimes has to handle more than four times that number in conditions the UNHCR described as “squalid”.

Left-wing members of the European Parliament visited the site and said inmates endured crushing heat and poor sanitation.—Reuters