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North African Upheaval Pushes Immigrants To Italian Island

For the past decade, the tiny island of Lampedusa has seen ebbs and flows of desperate immigrants arriving. Already in the past week, political upheaval in Tunisia looks set to spark a new wave.

Lampedusa harbor (noborder)

LAMPEDUSA - After two days of perfect calm, a north wind is blowing again. The gusts are strong and sudden, like an alarm waking the island of Lampedusa from a year-long reverie.

Since the revolt climaxed in Tunisia two weeks ago -- forcing its long-time president, Zine El Abidine Bel Ali into exile -- 190 Tunisians have fled to this small Sicilian island by boat. There are as many as three landings a day.

Just the day before, 62 people, including several children, were crowding the dock, which had been virtually deserted since March 2010, following the debarkation of a group of immigrants from Libya.

The new wave of immigration is raising fears that Lampedusa will find itself in yet another emergency, one that national and local authorities thought was finally over.

"I'm Tunisian, I'm Tunisian, I'm Tunisian," a group of young men and nine boys – there are no women - keep repeating. They are cold and their clothes are soaked. Last Sunday, 32 landed here. The day before, 26 arrived on three different boats. Ten days earlier, a stricken luxury yacht dropped anchor off shore. "We are Ben Alì"s followers. They told us to bring the boat to safety. We cannot come back. We're seeking political asylum," said two sailors, before being sent away.

"We don't want to raise the alarm yet, but we cannot hide our concern," admits Dino De Rubeis, mayor of Lampedusa. Everyone wants to play down the situation. But there's no denying that the arrival of these first boats might be the first crack in a Tunisian emigration front that was supposed to be sealed, calling into question the sanctity of bilateral agreements between Italy and Tunisia.

A visit to the former military base Loran at Capo Ponente, the headquarters of a now-closed immigration center, offers insight into what is going on. A fishing boat that arrived yesterday morning is seized here. "This is not a small boat stolen by runaways in the dark of the night. It looks like a well-organized landing," says one local who has seen many arrivals over the years. People are arriving from all parts of Tunisia -- the south, the north, cities and the countryside.

They talk of their disappointment for what they now consider a sham revolution. "Ben Alì ran away, but his men are still in power," they whisper, before being taken by plane to another immigrant center in Brindisi in southeastern Italy, a stopover on their way back to Tunisia.

On the dock, someone suggests that political prisoners released from Monastir prison after the revolution may have fled here, because there were people with scars typical of those who had been jailed there. The prisoners were reportedly marked with one scar for each year spent in jail.

Loyalists, disillusioned opponents, all of them desperate, arrive here together. And all of them are sent home together.

At 4:45 pm, an Air Mistral plane to Brindisi leaves with its latest cargo of sorrow. It follows the same route that it did the last two days. It is too problematic for the authorities to keep the immigrants here -- or to admit that Lampedusa's immigrant center is still, at least partially, open. The centre was the scene of dramatic riots in August 2008.

"During those days, there were 1,200 immigrants crowded in there, living in extreme conditions. There were people who injected their own urine to cause infections. Others mutilated themselves, just to find a way out," says Enza Malatino, psychotherapist at the local health center.

Malatino has listened to the stories of mothers who had to throw their children's corpses into the sea, the stories of boys who were treated like dogs. She knows those postcards from hell, the nightmare that the island does not want to live anymore. They prefer to pay for a hotel for the immigrants forced to spend the night here, rather than reopen, even for a day, the 760-bed shelter.

"I understand the national government's policy," says the mayor. "If we reopen that shelter even for an hour we'll give them the pretext to come. Following the new political crisis in the Maghreb, Lampedusa could become once again a favorite destination."

Lampedusa's municipal authority wants to turn the shelter into schools. Pietro Busetta, the town councilor for tourism and an economist at the University of Palermo, is working to open an immigration museum like the one on Ellis Island in New York harbor. "To honor the memory of people who arrived here and to show the great tradition of hospitality that this island has always had," he says.

Like the tides, history always returns. And it is once again knocking on Lampedusa's door.

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