As Italy prepares to vote, migration from Africa is once again a hot topic, even as the number of arrivals is dropping. A view from the tiny Italian island that has been at the center of the debate for more than a decade, where the specter of migrants is rolled out as prime election propaganda.
LAMPEDUSA — The double-decker boat slowly approaches the dock while Italian rock music plays. It is just after 9 p.m., and the air is warm and windy. The many people on board gather bags, shoes and towels and head for the exit.
"Nice, we had a good time," say two tourists from the northern Italian city of Bergamo as they get on the scooter parked at the end of the pier.
The evening cruise lasted four hours: it included a tour of the most beautiful beaches, dolphin spotting, an aperitif with a D.J. set, and food before returning. It was a long party on the sea, one of the countless attractions of the island of Lampedusa, which is still filled with tourists even as summer fades.
This image might seem out of place for an island that has become synonymous with migration. But Lampedusa, a 22-square-kilometer island closer to the African coast than the Italian mainland, remains a popular spot for Italian holiday-goers, especially in summer when there are direct flights from Rome and Milan.
But in Italy, the issue of immigration to the island is back front and center of political debate as the country prepares to vote in late September.
Not far away another boat has recently docked at another pier: it is a patrol boat of the Guardia di Finanza, the Italian arm of the police force responsible for financial crime and smuggling. On board are 20 migrants from Tunisia, four of whom are minors. The first to disembark, limping, is a tall, thin boy. He advances slowly up the ladder, touching his knee.
Waiting for him are police officers, cultural mediators and some volunteers who hand everyone a glass of water, juice and cookies. Another boy slumps down for a few minutes, holding his head, then gets up and lines up with the other fellow travelers who have just disembarked.
Migrants do not exist.
Together, they board the white bus that awaits them at the end of the dock, cross the city and, passing restaurants full of vacationers, they arrive at the Contrada Imbriacola center, the initial reception center, better known as the "hotspot". The facility that houses them is outside the town; they will remain there until the day they are transferred to the mainland or repatriated.
On this island that symbolizes migration in Italy, migrants do not exist. They are a constant but invisible presence: from the hotspot you cannot leave and only security and reception staff can enter. Not even journalists are allowed in.
Detention, not reception
Until 2019, thanks to a hole in the fence, it was not uncommon to meet newly disembarked migrants, particularly around the church, where the parish priest shared free WiFi to allow them to communicate with family members back home. When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, the net surrounding the center was reinforced to prevent the spreading of the virus.
"This place looks more like a detention center than a place for an initial reception. It is constantly manned by law enforcement," explains Angelo Farina, one of the two doctors at the hotspot.
The procedure after disembarkation is the same for everyone: swabbing, photosignaling and pre-identification.
"Our job is to do proper medical screenings to identify vulnerable cases and then transfer the clinical information of each migrant to the second reception doctors. But in the summer, with the increase in arrivals, it is difficult for us to operate. The whole system is designed in an emergency set-up. Every year the same management problems occur even if few people arrive."
Between January and August 2022, 57,168 migrants arrived by sea in Italy, an increase compared to 2021 (when there were 39,410). But a sharp decrease compared to 2016-2017, the years of the greatest influx of refugees to Italy and Europe, when respectively 115,068 and 99,119 people arrived on Italian shores.
Actually, the number of arrivals in August in Lampedusa has been similar to last year: 5,425 arrivals in 176 landings, compared to 5,210 arrivals in 189 landings in 2021. From Aug. 18 to 25, due to strong mistral winds, no one landed.
From Aug. 26 on, as sea conditions improved, as many as 40-50 barges a day arrived. This situation again produced overcrowding at the center, which has a maximum capacity of 350 people but some days has to house over 1,000 if people cannot be transferred to facilities in other Italian cities.
Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right Northern League party, made a surprise return to Lampedusa on Aug. 31. He had already visited the island earlier in the month to inaugurate his electoral tour. This time, he again toured inside the Contrada Imbriacola center, accompanied by the island's deputy mayor, Attilio Lucia, a member of his party.
Following the same pattern as his first visit, he expressed solidarity with the police officers working at the facility, did not speak to the migrants present, but only included them in some video selfies, pointing out that they sleep in cramped conditions and that "they all have cell phones." He then denounced the "unworthy conditions", that have nonetheless been the same for months.
On his first visit, after a tour of the center, Salvini had also toured the most beautiful coves of the island aboard the Gamar, the leisure boat that first came to the rescue after the Oct. 3, 2013, shipwreck in which 368 people died.
We do not want Lampedusa to be exploited for electoral purposes.
Sitting outside his ice cream shop, Vito Fiorino, former owner of the boat, is pained to remember that morning.
"The tourist season was ending. We had decided to spend the night with some friends out on the boat. At dawn we woke up to return to the port when we heard noises in the distance. It sounded like seagulls. We got closer and never expected to see so many bodies in the water near the shore. After we called for help and started to pull up people, live bodies, lifeless bodies. The boat is approved to handle nine people, we managed to get 47 survivors in."
For four years, Fiorino was unable to talk about the experience, then he sold the boat and today he goes to schools to talk to kids about migration.
"When the photos of Salvini on that boat came out so many people called me, I didn't know what to say. The Gamar is no longer mine, but it is certainly a symbol. We still talk about stopping migration, without asking what is happening at sea, without questioning... the detention centers where people are held."
Matteo Salvini at a hotspot in Lampedusa island, Italy
"The real emergency is about the people who can't make it to Lampedusa," points out Giovanni D'Ambrosio, a worker with Mediterranean Hope, the migrant and refugee program of the Federation of Evangelical Churches.
D'Ambrosio has lived on the island for a year-and-a-half and says that arrivals have been increasing for the past few months — Tunisian families as well as migrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh who work in Libya.
"We talked to Egyptian kids who had transited through Libyan detention centers and they were upset: one of the words they remember and repeated was jalis, sit, which the jailers shouted all the time," he says.
"We do not want Lampedusa to be exploited for electoral purposes. We think the solutions for proper management of arrivals exist. The numbers are not alarming. We have been saying this for a long time: we need quick transfers, including through air bridges so that the facility is not constantly overcrowded."
Politicians can't agree on what to do.
The right-wing coalition (made up by the far-right Fratelli d'Italia and Northern League, together with Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia) pushes for a firm hand to stop arrivals. Salvini wants new versions of security decrees that were enacted during the government of former president Giuseppe Conte but that were ruled partly unconstitutional by some Italian courts.
Giorgia Meloni of Fratelli d'Italia talks about a "naval blockade." It makes a nice election slogan that she constantly proposes on social networks, but is unworkable in reality because it would amount to a hostile act of war. Addressing criticism of the idea, she corrected herself and said she meant a "political — not legal — naval blockade". She explained that the idea is actually to stop arrivals through a new agreement with Libya, similar to the pact between the European Union and Turkey.
Migrants are the object of propaganda.
Adding to this is the proposal of hotspots in Africa to screen migrants before departure, but the solution is difficult to implement because it goes against the right to asylum, which requires access to the territory of the state where one wants to seek protection.
When it comes to the center-left Democratic Party, migration occupies a small amount of print in their manifesto. There is space only for Jus Scholar, the reform of law to give citizenship to children born and raised in Italy who have attended school for at least five years.
"The most complex, sensitive and divisive issue in contemporary politics is addressed with few words and superficially by almost all parties," says Gianfranco Schiavone, a member of the Association for Legal Studies of Immigration (Asgi).
Schiavone continues: "It is the right-wing parties that give the most space to the issue, but without any real analysis. They repeat that there are too many migrants, that only legal entries should be allowed, but the solutions remain archaic and not in step with the times. There is no reflection on Italian demographics or how the phenomenon has changed over the years. No party has an overall, real, detailed vision. They all use the same tones and language. It is a movie we have already seen: migrants are not rights-bearing subjects, but the object of propaganda."
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