Perils of Lampedusa

North African Immigration to Europe

by Alex Sammon

Illustration by Diane Zhou

published October 10, 2013

BROWN WOODEN CASKETS FILL the loading bay. There are 194 in total. They are split into three parallel lines, with a handful of small, ivory children’s coffins off to the side. There will be more in the cluster tomorrow. The island’s nearby airport hangar now functions as a makeshift morgue—body bags and hearses crowd the area, another shipment of coffins is on its way. Italian authorities expect to need at least 100 more by the week’s end.

The scene on the southern dock of Lampedusa is grave. On the night of October 2, a 65-foot fishing boat left the Libyan port of Misrata. On board were an estimated 500 North African refugees, most from war-torn Eritrea and Somalia. In the early morning hours of October 3, the boat neared its destination of Lampedusa, a small island province just south of Italy’s mainland.

     The frenzied hours that followed have caused some confusion about the chain of events. But there are some things of which we are certain. The boat’s motor failed around sunrise. Just 800 meters from the shoreline, the vessel began to take on water. Lacking flares and needing some sort of distress signal, passengers took to lighting t-shirts and jackets on fire, hoping the flame would attract surrounding ships.

     The fire quickly spread out of control, igniting an explosion on the port side of the boat and forcing its passengers to quickly evacuate to starboard. This resulted in a major weight imbalance, causing the boat to capsize. Without warning or access to floatation devices, the boat’s 500 passengers were thrown overboard. A small handful was able to grab lifejackets, while others clung to empty plastic water bottles. Yet the majority of passengers did not know how to swim, and the available forms of flotation could not prevent them from drowning. Many passengers were unable to escape even the ship’s hull.

     Onlookers told Al Jazeera that a nearby boat came within close range of the burning ship, yet failed to extend any sort of assistance. Meanwhile, there have been accusations that the Italian Coast Guard did not act in an expedient manner. Vito Fiorino, a fisherman and first responder, indicated that the Coast Guard was “focusing more upon ensuring footage of the rescue mission than the rescue itself.” Internal investigations have been launched to look into both of these matters.

     Nearby fishermen were the first on scene, all too familiar with the drill. Some were able to pull a handful of victims aboard, but, covered in gasoline spewing from the boat, many slipped through their fingers. Domenico Colaptino, a local fisherman, told reporters that in a matter of minutes, the majority of the African refugees on board sank to the bottom of the Lampedusan coastline, a watery mass grave that has claimed a documented 20,000 lives since 1988.

     While many details are still contested, it is unanimous that rescue efforts proved to be insufficient. Of the initial 500 passengers, only 155 are confirmed to be alive. This number is not expected to increase in the week ahead.

     When news of this tragedy reached the Italian mainland, shouts for immigration reform swelled. Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s first black Minister of Integration, was adamant that looser immigration policies would be enacted in coming weeks. An official statement from the European Union stated that an international revision of immigration policy would be at the top of the docket for meetings next week. “The rules must be changed,” Kyenge said. “I hope this never happens again.”




IN 2013 ALONE, IT IS estimated that some 30,000 immigrants will make the voyage from Northern Africa to Italy, most of who will journey through Lampedusa. These immigrants—largely Syrian, Eritrean, and Somalian—are often fleeing political persecution and insurgent violence, rampant in all three countries. Human rights groups estimate there to be at least 10,000 political prisoners in Eritrea alone.

     Lampedusa is the largest of the Italian Pelagie Islands in the Mediterranean Sea, which isn’t saying much. The island is roughly 7.5 square miles, with a population of only 5,000. Its location in the Mediterranean has made it a tourism hotspot.

    Temperate summer weather and calm, pristine seas attract thousands of tourists to Lampedusa every year, a destination that is far enough from mainland Europe to seem exotic, yet close enough to feel safe. Still, while hotels are filling up during the summer months, so too are the island’s immigration holding tanks and deportation centers.

     These factors have turned Lampedusa into an epicenter of African immigration. Italy’s minster of the interior, Angelino Alfano, has likened Lampedusa to Checkpoint Charlie, calling it the true “dividing line between the northern and southern hemispheres.” The same features that attract tourists also attract an onslaught of immigrants. Lampedusa’s location near Northern Africa (a mere 70 miles from Tunisia) has made it an immigration hotbed, with thousands of migrants passing through every year. The calm summer seas and proximity to Tunisia are supposed to make the journey less perilous.

     Boatloads of immigrants have been passing through the island for decades, and many consider it to be the “backdoor to Europe.” Domenico Colaptino, who pulled 18 victims aboard his family’s fishing boat, told the BBC, “wrecks are so common off the coast of Lampedusa that fishermen often damage their nets on residual debris from sunken vessels.”




EVEN NOW, THE 155 SURVIVORS of the tragic shipwreck wait in an Italian holding tank, under surveillance, hoping that they will not be forcibly returned to Northern Africa. The tank has been designed to hold 500 people while cases for asylum are being reviewed. Yet that number often swells into the thousands when large boats arrive. Due to increased regulation in recent years, these 155 survivors can expect to be there for multiple weeks. Many of them, ultimately, will be deported.

     Italian immigration policy has been devised to function like a game of Capture the Flag. If refugees and asylum-seekers can make it to the Italian country, they are eligible to apply for asylum or work permits—in essence, they are “on base.” However, if the vessel gets caught in transit by the Italian Coast Guard—tasked, importantly, with handling immigration—they are either sent to jail or deported back from whence they came. Often, newspapers report, they are returned to a war-torn African country that is not even their own.

     And this explains why Lampedusa, which is geographically closer to Africa than Europe, is such a popular destination. If refugees and immigrants can survive the 70-mile trek, there is some potential for asylum. This phenomenon has caused Lampedusa to develop a massive holding cell for migrants, one of the largest developments on the otherwise bucolic island.

     Italy has long been a nation of emigrants, not immigrants. In fact, the country didn’t even have an immigration policy at all until 1986. Silvio Berlusconi and his notorious right-wing constituency passed the current immigration policy in 2002, called the Bossi-Fini Law. The law looks askance at the plight of Northern Africans, drawing a hard-line between extreme cases of humanitarian asylum, which they claim to be legitimate, and other forms of immigration, which do not qualify for state support. Only Africans in the absolute poorest of conditions maintain eligibility for asylum. The Bossi-Fini calls for armed naval boats to patrol the coastline for immigrant ships, hoping to minimize landfall all together.

     The economic downturn in 2008 coincided with two more ad-hoc asylum laws, ratcheting up Italy’s refusal to take on African refugees. According to Camilla Hawthorne, an MPA holder from Brown University, the laws allowed for “persistent surveillance of the predominantly African immigrants that reside within the country, and an increased ability to detain and expel migrants.” It is now nearly impossible for foreign workers to gain citizenship or access to public housing. Undocumented immigration is subject to a four-year prison sentence. While Hawthorne emphasizes that attributing this issue to fear of economic failure and xenophobia is an oversimplification, systemic racism certainly plays a substantial role. In the words of Berlusconi, “the left wants a multiethnic society—we don’t.”

     This legislation has served to keep the Coast Guard busy—just days before the tragedy on October 3, a boat with 398 African immigrants was captured and eventually sent back, a best case scenario according to the letter of the law. Yet the majority of these boats are barely seaworthy to begin with, and lucky to even accomplish the one-way journey. A return trip is even more likely to result in tragedy and loss of life. 

     Smuggling, as a result, has become a huge business. Consider the Doctor, the nicknamed navigator of the most recent shipwreck. The Doctor is a Tunisian native who has been arrested multiple times on trafficking charges. Processed and deported back to Tunisia by Italian officials, the Doctor has returned to smuggling, underscoring the futility of the Italian system. He is estimated to have pocketed a cool $678,000 on this voyage alone, without a successful arrival.

     And The Doctor is not the only one. There are thought to be more than a handful of trafficking companies, running ships full of refugees on a close to daily basis. At the same time, fear of Italian Naval patrol has forced the journeys to become even more dangerous—ships travel at night, often without lights whatsoever, so as to avoid attention. The result has been calamitous.




JOURNALISTS AND FIGUREHEADS ALIKE have clamored for reform for years now. Even Pope Francis, perhaps Italy’s most prominent person, thinks this trend is downright unconscionable. He has called for a sympathetic revision of the immigration law on multiple occasions.

     During a visit to Sicily in July, he stopped off at Lampedusa, and lamented the state of affairs. Standing on the sandy beach of Lampedusa’s southern shore, he called out political actors for “global indifference” to the crisis at hand, encouraging an overhaul of the current structure. His demands were ignored.

     Hans Lucht, an anthropologist at the Danish Institute for International Studies, points out in a recent NY Times editorial that the European Union still has extensive plans to construct an extensive border surveillance system, called Eurosur (colloquially, Fortress Europe). Despite this new political rhetoric of humanitarianism, Lucht points out that “there is a growing acceptance that a watery graveyard is a necessary evil for the maintenance of a free and prosperous Europe.” Despite the obvious moral failings and proven futility, Europe seems content to build higher walls and bigger barriers, intent on keeping the Africans out.

     Regardless of these obstacles, many refugees would rather take their chances with the open seas than with the war-torn landscapes of Eritrea, the militant occupation of Somalia. A reporter for the Guardian was able to converse briefly with an 18-year-old Eritrean who survived the shipwreck. He calls himself David Villa, in honor of a famous Spanish soccer player. He maintains that this shipwreck was but a small hiccup on his path to Switzerland, his dream destination. He is relieved to have made the journey, and excited for his new life. “I want to be a nurse,” he says from a holding tank. While bureaucrats and politicians prepare to discuss a new immigration bill, there is still a likelihood that he will be sent back, only to risk his life once more.



BACK ON THE PIER, A SINGLE RED rose adorns each and every coffin. Roses don’t grow in Italy, and least not in this bulk. The majority of these flowers are grown in Northern and Western Africa. Now, a local fisherman throws a dozen of them into the water, a sign of respect for those who died.


ALEX SAMMON B’15 is team Francis .