Italy is rocky shore for Europe's boat people

  • 12 July 2011
  • From the section Europe
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Lampedusa: A speck of Italian land off North Africa is now a migration hotspot

LAMPEDUSA, Italy: The half moon hung low in the Mediterranean sky. It was a calm, clear night for the crossing from Tripoli to Lampedusa.

The boat was more like a barge, without cover, not even for the wheelhouse or engine room.

The Africans were quiet, patient, packed in, absorbed in their escape, their knees drawn up in the confined space as they had been for 30 hours at sea.

On board were 299 men and 14 women. Although they did not know it they were on the fifth boat to arrive in Lampedusa in 24 hours - part of a continuing exodus from war-ravaged Libya.

Only snippets of conversation were possible with the migrants. The Italians whisked them away. They wanted them out of sight. The "clandestini" have become ghosts, to be shuttled between reception centres that are now off-limits to the media.

Gaddafi's labourers

The migrants were originally from countries like Nigeria or Ghana. They were Colonel Gaddafi's "Gastarbeiters" - his guest workers. They did the jobs that Libyans chose not to. They learnt Arabic and sent part of their wages home. They worked, but enjoyed few rights.

Why they are leaving now, and in such numbers, is difficult to unravel. Several young men said it was the bombs, the war, the fighting. But another man hinted that he had been put aboard by the Libyan government.

It was also strange that everyone we spoke to denied they had paid any money for the crossing. It is possible that the migrants are now being encouraged to leave Libya, so fulfilling Gaddafi's threat to "unleash an unprecedented wave of illegal immigration" into Europe.

On board there were small children and babies. One pregnant woman had collapsed on the deck. Only fear or coercion would persuade a mother to risk her baby on such a crossing.

On the Italian quayside they drank water from bottles and plastic cups. They sat in long lines, passive, waiting to be put on buses and taken to their first reception centre. Within 48 hours they will be put on ferries and dispersed to other centres in ports like Catania, Cagliari, Livorno - one more step into an unknown world.

Some of the migrants had no idea where they had landed. Lampedusa is a place without significance. One man spread his hands for us and said they were good for work. Another man from Nigeria - using his textbook English - said he had come for "greener pastures".

Their future is unclear. Some clearly are refugees. Some may claim asylum.

Most likely they will be released onto the streets of Italy to sell fake handbags or work fruit-gathering, another insecure existence on the margins of society. Some will return to sub-Saharan Africa.

France-Italy tensions

This is the second migration wave sparked by the Arab Spring.

In the early months it was Tunisians who made the shorter journey to this speck of rock surrounded by an azure sea. Over 50,000 of them came.

They were economic migrants, seizing the moment, riding a current of freedom. Paris was their destination. They spoke some French and had relatives there. They bubbled with expectation. A new world opening up before them.

In their numbers they shook Europe and challenged its ideals. Italy's Silvio Berlusconi did not want them. His government gave them temporary documents and watched them head for France, as he knew they would. It led to Paris introducing temporary border controls, suspending the free movement of people as guaranteed under the Schengen agreement.

In Paris I met some of the Tunisians who had reached the French capital. They were being fed on some wasteland close to the peripherique, the outer ring road. Graffiti was on the walls. Broken glass on the ground. All of them wanted to return home. This had been no promised land.

There is no welcome mat for migrants. Europe is absorbed with its own survival in a recession that stubbornly persists.

We then travelled to Belleville. Some of the Tunisians had been staying in a school. The riot police, the CRS, had ejected them. There was a stand-off but illegal migrants, without papers, sensed it was best to drift away.

Hundreds of Tunisians have already left France. The French government is paying them 300 euros (£266) each to return home and they are leaving in increasing numbers. Many, however, paid more than 1,000 euros to smugglers and are now trapped in France trying to raise funds.

European officials say these migrants are needed. In the long term that may be true, but there are 24 million out of work in Europe.

In many countries a young generation is growing up without work. But they are educated - and educated people tend to shy away from dirty and sometimes dangerous jobs. And many of the migrants are eager to work.

Like millions before them the African boat people travel with hope, but Europe is insecure. European officials talk up the benefits of migration. The voters see it otherwise. At a time of austerity they resent new arrivals and pity is sparse.

But none of this is known back on the Libyan coast. And that is part of the tragedy.

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