Italy is rocky shore for Europe's boat people

African migrants arriving in Lampedusa - file pic Lampedusa: A speck of Italian land off North Africa is now a migration hotspot

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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.

African migrants arriving in Lampedusa

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.

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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.

Lampedusa map

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.

Gavin Hewitt Article written by Gavin Hewitt Gavin Hewitt Europe editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 485.

    MAII: If someone is planning to escape Athens I wouldn't discuss it on my cell phone. You never know who might be listening in.

    Scotland Yard?

  • rate this

    Comment number 484.

    "Be honest: do you have the impression that your money is being used wisely and of any help to the Greek people?"

    I've been living here for three years. I have never had to give the state so much of my money before, in all the other countries I've lived in. But I have never had the impression that any government I was paying taxes to was only using my money wisely. Administrations make mistakes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 483.

    @ 473 - results of the German federal election 1932:

    Hitler - 37.3 %

    Wels - 21.6 %

    Thälmann - 14.3 %

    Kaas - 12.4 %

    It was the betrayal of that senile president, the self-proclaimed "war hero" Paul von Hindenburg, that destroyed German democracy and ultimately destroyed millions of lives across Europe. Democracy had nothing to do with it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 482.

    Those 'people'......I used that form as 'they' were not modern humans but ancestors of ours. The last I read on this subject the 'tree' is/probably still to grow....'we' may all have originated elsewhere, who knows what future discoveries will tell us ?
    What does 'unedumicated' mean ?
    And you are reluctant to answer previous questions..

  • rate this

    Comment number 481.

    480 "there's always a possibilty that those 'people' had ariived there from elsewhere."

    OOOH, THOOOOSE PEOPLE!(Here in the colonies we used to say "THEM PEOPLE" but then we're unedumicated.)Space aliens? Seems like more than one person here has a problem thinking of himself as having African roots. Too bad, you're African too just like the rest of us. Further back we came from monkeys.Hahahaha!

  • rate this

    Comment number 480.

    I see we are back in the Rift Valley, you know there's always a possibilty that those 'people' had ariived there from elsewhere.

    And still no answer from you on #446 from previous questions..?

  • rate this

    Comment number 479.


    And where will the Greek Refugee Camps be, outside Paris, London, and Berlin? Shhhhh. If someone is planning to escape Athens I wouldn't discuss it on my cell phone. You never know who might be listening in.

  • rate this

    Comment number 478.

    Not only Italy.
    There are Libyan Refugee Camps in Greece as well. Notably one at Igonomenitsa (The Greek mainland across from Corfu.)

  • rate this

    Comment number 477.

    474 It seems some people have a problem with the scientific discovery that the entire human race traces its ancestry back ultimately to the Rift Valley in Africa & that we are all descended from the same stock. Perhaps they prefer to believe in the fairly tale of Genesis in the Bible.News flash, the Garden of Eden if it existed was in Africa in the Rift Valley.Those who sinned were evicted! Haha!

  • rate this

    Comment number 476.


    This is the problem, possible financial meltdown combined with what is happening on the distant beaches of Italy!

  • rate this

    Comment number 475.

    Stock markets fell on Monday as a healthcheck on banks failed to stem worries about Europe's debt crisis.

    Financial shares were heavy fallers on news about deepening euro crisis, with Royal Bank of Scotland down 3.8% and BNP Paribas 3.1% lower.

  • rate this

    Comment number 474.

    And to get back on thread, well sort of, is it possible, and here I am referring to previous comments that have been made about African lineage, that the African ancestors of the likes of Rupert and our Dave, landed on an Italian beach together? And have kept in touch ever since!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 473.

    @453 Chris Camp

    "No. He had far less than 50 percent of all votes. His "election" had nothing to do with democracy."

    I beg to differ. The way Hitler managed to seize near absolute power exposes the innate distrust towards the sovereign in both the German and the European political system in order to fight extremism gaining ground as both deceptive as well as a corruption of historical facts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 472.

    @431 Chris Camp
    "I am a middle class taxpayer in Germany."

    So I guess you are following the public debate on the European debt crisis in Germany. Be honest: do you have the impression that your money is being used wisely and of any help to the Greek people?

  • rate this

    Comment number 471.

    Onthe subject of Murdoch, and by the way the Met chief has resigned over the the hacking scandal, does he ever look in the mirror ? The man should be sitting in a deckchair amongst his peers on some beach! Resting after a life of... , and reading one of his mags or papers. Why does this old man want more of the same, and when is enough.enough?

  • rate this

    Comment number 470.

    McCain quoted Chairman Mao, in interview on Bloomberg. "It's always darkest before it's completely black"

    True, just look at the latest news re China's grave environmental problems, massive corruption, dangerously high inflation, higher&higher food prices, groing rebellions in PRC's impoverished rural areas, not to mention increasing censorship and massive human rights violations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 469.

    17th July 2011 - 17:28
    448+ 449

    Denial is not a river in Egypt!! I love it!

    Re Putin, I respect the man and so apperently do many Russians.

    Russians have always respected and feared their authoritarian rulers.

    Now Germans think KGB gen. Putin has not deserved Quadriga award after all.

    [what Russian populus thinks is irrelevant. Putin will win anyway ;-)]

  • rate this

    Comment number 468.

    465. Previously mentioned Nancy Grace obsession and judgement ofCA case does not merit mention, please. McCain quoted Chairman Mao, in interview on Bloomberg. "It's always darkest before it's completely black" The interview was about the current process, by Congress, rated according to him at %17 approval, and he has not met any person who approves, 40% of budget is now borrowed,and will continue

  • rate this

    Comment number 467.

    "Awda, Anybody might think that orchestrated noise is taking place."

    "Awda, awda, mis..awda, awda, awda, awda, awda, awda. I say to the children''s minister, try to calm down and behave like an adult and if you can't, if it's beyond you, leave the chamber, get out, we'll manage without you."

  • rate this

    Comment number 466.


    Chris Camp

    You'll be happy to know that it was I, David, that gave you the thumbs up -- lol




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