The island of Lampedusa has long been a point of entry into Europe for immigrants making the perilous sea crossing from North Africa. A new wave is now fleeing uncertainty in Tunisia.
LAMPEDUSA – This tiny island south of Sicily suddenly seems half-Tunisian. Having arrived by boat in the wake of the Tunisian regime's collapse, hundreds of Tunisians are walking around the small streets near the port, raising levels of both anger and fear amongst locals.
This weekend, Lampedusa's mayor was forced to pass an urgent decree that forbids the selling of alcohol in cafes and grocery stores because it has become a "serious danger to citizens' safety."
With many of the immigrants forced to sleep outside, drinking may help brave the cold on these chilly February nights, but authorities worry that it could also be the spark that turns rising tension into actual violence.
Consider the numbers. On Sunday – the first day in the past week without any new immigrant arrivals – 250 immigrants were evacuated from Lampedusa: 150 by boat and 100 by plane. But that is just a small percentage of the 2,000 who have arrived over the past few weeks on an island with a population of fewer than 6,000.
All of southern Italy's immigrant shelters are currently at capacity, keeping the vast majority of the recent arrivals on Lampedusa, with some 150 police officers from various squadrons brought in to monitor this potentially dangerous situation.
The local center for immigrants has finally been reopened by Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, after days of inexplicable resistance. The center's gates nevertheless remain open, because there is simply not enough security to prevent the immigrants from walking in and out as they please.
A visit Sunday night to the shelter, which is meant to hold a maximum of 800 people, one could see an estimated 2,000 people sleeping in the vicinity
The following morning, the owner of "Bar del Porto" (Harbor Cafe), Massimo Tuccio, was yelling in Sicilian dialect: "It is a shame. This could only happen to us. If it were the North of Italy, the locals wouldn't be abandoned (by the government) like this."
Referring to the Tunisians as "Moroccans," he laments that they have "taken over" the island. "They act as if they were the owners. We are afraid for the women and children. They hit on our girls, one will end up getting pregnant," he said. "I have three children, and I will not let them go to school anymore. There are no police, and it is too dangerous."
Captain Donato De Tommaso, commander of Lampedusa's police force, is doing his best with limited staffing. But he recognizes the tense situation is ripe for serious confrontation. "A half-drunk man on one side, and a hot-headed on the other side are enough to start a sort of civil war. Tunisians vs. Sicilians: no one knows how that could end."
Locals also worry about theft. For now, many of the Tunisian arrivals still have some cash to charge their mobile phones, buy cigarettes, have breakfast in the cafes. But what will happen when that money runs out? "Maybe they will go to rob some of the (empty) beach homes," says Don Pino, owner of the most famous cafe on the island. "Or maybe they will rob our homes."
The island's fisherman, some of whom over the years have saved immigrants stranded in broken-down boats, have their own calculus. They have been on strike for weeks, protesting the price of oil for their boats, which in the wake of the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt now costs twice as much as elsewhere in Italy. They are looking forward to expressing their grievances at a meeting with government ministers that is scheduled to take place in Rome next Thursday.
"We want answers, or there will be trouble," says a threatening banner on one of the fishing boats. Salvatore, the boss of the protest committee and owner of the boat La Cambusa vows a hard line if their demands are not met. "We will close the harbor with steel cables and won't let anyone in or out; neither the authorities nor immigrants, seeing as they receive better treatment than we do."
Read the original article in Italian
photo - (noborder network)