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Lampedusa, a reluctant outpost in the storm

Text by Benjamin DODMAN , in Lampedusa

Latest update : 2014-06-25

Since the unrest sweeping across the Arab world released thousands of northbound migrants, the Italian island of Lampedusa has been thrust into the spotlight. But all its inhabitants hope for is that the world forgets about them.

“Is there a ‘hanging coffee’ for me?” asked a young man upon entering the Bar Mediterraneo in Lampedusa, where I was sipping my first cappuccino since landing on the Mediterranean island. While Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi might have described him as “tanned”, and despite his faked African accent, the man was not one of the six thousand migrants that have reached Italy’s southernmost outpost since February – but merely a local cracking a joke.  

His words, referring to the old Neapolitan habit of paying a “caffè sospeso” (hanging coffee) for future customers who might not afford it, reflect the general bonhomie – albeit mixed with a tinge of irritation – that has prevailed in Lampedusa in recent weeks.

The 5,000 or so inhabitants of Lampedusa, a tiny island located just 200km off the coast of Tunisia, are supremely proud of their reputation for solidarity towards stranded migrants, which has been rewarded in the past with a gold medal for civilian merits.

Unlike the Maltese, they say, Lampedusan ships will never deny assistance to a vessel lost at sea – a requirement under human rights agreements of which Italy is a signatory. Nor are they openly resentful of the waves of immigrants that have arrived from North Africa in recent years, largely because, as the manager of the Grand Hotel del Sole points out, “we don’t ever see them”.

What they do resent, however, is all the fuss that has been made of the latest, massive influx sparked by the recent unrest in the Arab world. Since the sudden arrival on February 12 of enough immigrants to outnumber the island’s inhabitants, Lampedusa has been swamped by an army of journalists busy sending alarmist reports about a looming migrant invasion.

In the week following February’s mass arrivals Tunisian migrants were indeed everywhere to be seen, playing football and sipping coffee in bars around town. “Had they come with a flag they could have conquered the island,” I was jokingly told by Roberta Lasagna of Italy’s RAI news channel.

Italian authorities promptly dispatched legions of police, soldiers and coastguards to the island, and began flying the migrants to reception centres elsewhere in Italy. With the remaining few hundred now largely confined to the island’s own reception centre, the migrants are once again “invisible”. But the damage to the tourism industry, which employs most Lampedusans, has been done.

“Every day I get people calling to cancel their reservations because they are scared by what they hear on the news,” says Umberto Gibilisco, who runs La Roccia tourist resort just outside the island’s only town. Even as we speak, the evening news on the television runs a headline on “new migrant landings in Lampedusa”, but the D-Day language hardly tells the truth about migrants that are towed into port and, after medical examination, promptly bussed to the island’s reception centre without so much as a siren disturbing the sleepy town.

Over at the Mediterraneo, the owner Silvana Lucà says she misses the cheerful Tunisians who crowded her bar at the height of the arrivals last month. “Sospeso or not, I always had coffee for them in my bar,” she says. But if the Italian government’s warning of a “biblical exodus” of refugees from Libya is anything to go by, she may want to stock up fast.


Date created : 2011-03-07