During my voyages in Africa, young men would sometimes stop me in the street and ask “How do I get to your country?” For those dreaming of working in Europe, the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa was, tragically, part of the answer.
There are few places in the world where the cost of not having the right passport is more visible than in Lampedusa. Geologically part of the African continent, the island is a thin sliver of upthrust crust in the southern Mediterranean, closer to Tunisia than it is to mainland Sicily, under which it falls administratively. The island has been a place of passage since Classical times. Archaeologists have found evidence of settlement by Greeks and Phoenicians. The Romans used it as a base for their excursions into North Africa—a path that was later traced in reverse, during World War II, when the British Navy occupied the island in preparation for the Allied invasion of Sicily, the first step in the liberation of Europe.
These days, the British come to Lampedusa mostly for summer tourism. In 2013, the island’s tiny Rabbit Beach was voted by users of the popular travel website TripAdvisor as the best in the world. When I visited in December that year, the island was all but shut down for the off-season. My hotel had cut the power in its unstaffed lobby to conserve electricity. On the main street that runs through the town center, just one restaurant, serving cafeteria-style premade dishes, remained open.
During my first walk through the town, the only people I saw were clusters of old Italian men in heavy coats and small groups of young east Africans, lanky in their running suits, walking slowly through the otherwise empty streets.
LAMPEDUSA HAS BECOME A PLACE WHERE THE RICH WORLD MEETS THE POOR
After a couple of years in Nairobi and a brief stint in Beijing, my family and I had returned to live in Rome. Lampedusa was often in the news, with boatloads of Middle Eastern and African refugees on the front pages of the papers and in the evening broadcasts. Over the past couple of decades, the island has become a place where the rich world meets the poor. Like the deadly southern desert stretches of my home state of Arizona, the island and the sea around it have become a kind of culling point for those desperate to put their skills and exertion to work where they will be most valuable.
In 2013, nearly 43,000 political refugees and economic migrants crossed the Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy. Some 15,000 landed in Lampedusa. They made the trip in dangerous and cramped conditions, on inflated rubber boats or rickety wooden trawlers, packed so tightly that many were unable to move. In many cases, the ship didn’t have a captain; a migrant with sailing experience was given a compass and told to bear north. It wasn’t unusual for a trip to take days. On arrival, before being transferred to other parts of Italy, the passengers often had to be treated for dehydration, sunstroke, piercing pains from being pinned in place without moving, and nausea from the sea and the engine fumes.
In October of that year, two months before my visit to Lampedusa, a wooden fishing boat carrying more than 500 migrants from Libya was less than a quarter mile off the island’s coast when its engine failed and its hull began taking on water. If the sun had been out, the boat would have been within sight of land. But it was night, and the passengers risked sinking unseen. Accounts from the ship are fragmented, but the most likely scenario is this one: someone lit a blanket on fire to attract attention from the coast guard on the island and accidentally ignited gas that had spilled from the broken engine. Panicked passengers pushed away from the flames and unbalanced the boat, causing it to capsize. Few on board knew how to swim. Rescuers from the island saved 156 people. They also recovered 368 bodies, including two from an earlier wreck that had been floating in the Mediterranean for months.
Bodies recovered from the sea off the coast of Lampedusa are officially the responsibility of the mayor—in this case Giusi Nicolini, a chain-smoking former environmental campaigner who had won the election the year before on a platform that included a more humanitarian approach to the island’s transient migrant population. I met her in the evening on my first day on Lampedusa, in her office in the town hall, where she showed me pictures of the dead she had taken on her iPad. Flip. Blue body bags were lined on the concrete pier. Flip. “This is a baby of three months,” Nicolini said. “She was put in a sack.” Flip. At the end of a row of body bags, a bundle was wrapped in what look like emergency blankets. “These are the kids. They ran out of bags, so they wrapped them like this. There are two children that are two or three years old and one a bit bigger.” Flip. Scuba divers recovered the bodies of fourteen children. “But there were more,” Nicolini said. “The people on the boat had a precise count of how many were on board, but children don’t pay, and so the children weren’t counted. There could have been between twenty and thirty.” Flip. Flip. Flip. Flip.
On my walk to Nicolini’s office, I had passed by a ship graveyard, a once-empty lot next to the port where authorities stored some of the vessels on which migrants had arrived. Small fishing boats were packed together, sometimes one on top of the other, as if the waves had recoiled from some terrible accident at sea, leaving their smashed hulks high and dry. The boats were small, of the type that would require a crew of two or three. I tried to imagine how ships that size could hold hundreds of people. But I couldn’t.
THE MODERN HOLOCAUST
Nobody keeps an exact count of how many immigrant lives are lost at sea. The International Organization for Migration estimates that 20,000 have drowned over the past twenty years. In 2013, the death toll was roughly 700—those from the Lampedusa boat wreck, which made international headlines, and just about as many who died anonymously.
In 2011, when revolutions in Tunisia and Libya sparked an exodus into Italy, about 2,300 people died trying to make the crossing. For many of the migrants, the sea passage isn’t even the most dangerous part of the trip. Their journey may involve riding in an overloaded vehicle across the Sahara Desert, where a broken engine means an awful death.
“The lesson we have to learn from these people is that they don’t have any other choice,” Nicolini told me. “Otherwise they wouldn’t choose to get on those boats and risk their lives. Policies that make their trip even more difficult will not stop them. The only result will be a greater number of deaths.”
“It’s the modern holocaust,” she continued. “We’re a generation that looks at racial laws, at apartheid, at the Nazi Holocaust as closed pages of history, like great injustices that the advent of democracy, the big wars, and so on have put to an end. We’re countries that have constitutions that put humans and human rights above everything else, countries that have signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But we don’t realize that the holocaust of today is determined by our laws, that this is the effect of the policies we’ve put in place to defend our fortresses.”
She lit another cigarette. “What do I tell my little niece when she asks me, ‘Why did they die?’” she said. “I tell her it’s because they came from far away. They were on a boat that wasn’t safe. And then she asks me, ‘Why didn’t they take a plane?’ It’s hard to explain to a little girl why we didn’t let them take a plane.”
One morning, toward the end of my stay in Lampedusa, I walked up one of the roads that led out past the edge of town. Square concrete houses gave way to a shallow valley planted with olive trees, which just as quickly yielded to the scrubby white limestone hills that make up most of the island. At the end of the road, some fifteen minutes on, were a small parking lot and a checkpoint that marked the entrance of the reception center run by the Italian government; migrants are housed there before being transferred to other facilities in Sicily or on the mainland. The evening before, an Italian television channel had aired footage taken by a Syrian refugee on his cell phone, in which migrants could be seen being made to strip and line up in a crowded open-air courtyard and hosed down by workers at the center. Nicolini had compared the imagery to that of a concentration camp.
I didn’t have permission to enter the reception center, so I climbed away from the parking lot up a hill, where I could look down at it in the valley below. The center consisted of five white two-story buildings with red roofs and the soot-stained steel frames of two other buildings that had been burned in 2011 by Tunisian migrants protesting threats of deportation. Laundry hung on the fences. People played soccer in the yard. During their stay in Lampedusa, migrants are free to come and go from the center, and some had climbed out of the center onto the hill opposite mine, where they were sunning themselves on its slope.
I traversed the crest of the hill and turned back toward town. A group of eight young African men were climbing out of the valley. They didn’t speak English or Italian. We walked together for a few minutes, and then they cut through a field and I continued my walk back to the port.
Later that day, I stopped by the town church, a pale modern building off one of the town’s main piazzas. In July 2013, months before the shipwreck, Pope Francis had visited the island and delivered a homily in which he challenged the world to search its conscience with regard to refugees. “These brothers and sisters of ours were trying to escape difficult situations to find some serenity and peace,” he said. “They were looking for a better place for themselves and their families, but instead they found death.” He had celebrated Mass with a chalice and a cross carved out of wood taken from one of the wrecked ships in the graveyard. “In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference,” he said. “We have become used to the suffering of others. ‘It doesn’t affect me. It doesn’t concern me. It’s none of my business!’”
The church was open, and I stepped inside. A small group of Eritrean men were sitting in the pews near the door. Two of them got up to speak with me. They had heard that the priest sometimes gave out jackets and were waiting for him to arrive, and while they waited we talked. Both men had been teachers in Eritrea, and they asked me not to print their names for fear of reprisals against their families back home. They told me they had set out from Eritrea in early 2011 and passed illegally through Ethiopia, Sudan, and Libya. They had crossed the Sahara packed twenty or thirty to a car. In Libya, in the city of Misurata, they were kept in a small room and beaten until their families sent payment for the trip across the Mediterranean. The journey had taken them more than two years, required them to risk their lives in the desert and at sea, and cost them roughly $10,000 each.
In Asmara, you can buy an airline ticket to Rome for less than $1,000. With a plane change in Cairo, if the connection is good, you’ll be sipping an Italian espresso less than eleven hours after the first liftoff.
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