- immigration - Italy - Mediterranean Sea - Tunisia
Right side of history, wrong side of the Med
US President Barack Obama says the Tunisians that have jolted the Arab world are on the right side of history. But all those stranded in Lampedusa know is that home is on the wrong side of the Mediterranean.
They arrive in rickety boats, many soaked to the skin but with smiles on their faces. As popular revolutions topple one Arab regime after another, the migrants flocking to the Italian island of Lampedusa have become the flip side of the coin – the undesired effects that prevent Europe from simply looking on with awe at what the people of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have achieved.
In recent weeks, more than 7,000 illegal migrants from Tunisia – almost all men in their 20s and 30s – have crossed the narrow stretch of Mediterranean Sea that separates them from Lampedusa, a tiny speck of land located some 400 km south of Sicily, and half that distance from North Africa.
The mayor of Lampedusa has ordered them locked up in the island’s reception centre. But many simply climb over the fence to go and sit in the bars along via Roma, Lampedusa’s main artery.
Off rickety boats
Walid, a 22-year-old from Tataouine, near Djerba, arrived three days ago after a 20-hour journey through rough waters – a short trek by current standards, with many boats taking up to three days to cross the narrow stretch of water between Tunisia and Lampedusa.
His boat had been tossed about by strong gales, which forced a brief lull in crossings last week. “Water kept gushing in and we had to use our shirts to plug the holes in the boat,” he said.
Like most of the Tunisians in Lampedusa, Walid doesn’t plan to hang around for long. He says he has family in Pantin, outside Paris, and that is where he is heading for.
I asked him whether he thought the ouster of Ben Ali had raised hopes back home, but he simply shrugged his shoulders and answered “not for me”.
His words are echoed by the dozen or so migrants drinking coffee outside the Bar Roma, all of whom speak fluent French and a little Italian. “They’re all the same,” says Scandar, referring to the new Tunisian authorities. “They got rid of the top gun, but his henchmen haven’t budged.”
Like Scandar, Salim hails from the coastal city of Zarzis, in eastern Tunisia. He says one of his neighbours was killed during the country’s recent revolution. “Security has got worse back home and there are no jobs for people like us,” he said. When I pointed out that many in Europe are also struggling to find jobs, he swore it couldn’t possibly be worse than at home.
Salim and his travelling companions, who preferred not to be photographed, asked me how they could reach France and how much the journey would cost. They said they were confident Italian authorities would fly them over to the mainland and then let them go.
Onto chartered planes
Flights to the mainland have indeed resumed as the reception centre for migrants in Lampedusa is once again over capacity. Its director, Cono Callipò, said some 250 were heading today to the mainland, where they will be screened to determine whether they qualify as asylum seekers or as economic migrants. “If they are simply looking for work they will eventually be sent back home,” he said.
Italian authorities are being assisted by a host of humanitarian workers, who have become a ubiquitous presence in Lampedusa. Emiliano Cadeddù, a Sardinian volunteer who provides first aid aboard coastguard ships, is pessimistic about the migrants’ prospects. “I wash them, I feed them, I nurse them, but in the end I have to send them back,” he said.
Not all are sent back against their will. One little vessel flying the Tunisian flag sailed out of port this morning. Its crew of six fishermen had sought refuge in the Italian port after a storm damaged the boat three days ago.
“We’re heading home now,” said the boat’s skipper, Mohammed, while swallowing a huge lump of Panettone. “There is great hope now that Ben Ali is gone, no one is afraid to speak anymore.”
Mohammed and his men say they don’t know why so many fellow Tunisians are desperate to leave the country. Yet, even as we speak, the 12th boat in as many hours sails into port, carrying scores more migrants determined to stay on this side of the Mediterranean, at all cost.