More asylum seekers than this island's population arrived in one day

ROBERT HARDMAN: The island where more asylum seekers than the population arrived in one day – the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa sums up Europe’s impotence in the face of migration

To put it in perspective, imagine that 3.7 million migrants suddenly landed on the shores of Kent — in one week.

I suspect, at this point, that even the most liberal, charitable do-gooders from Dartford to Dover would have to concede that things had gone badly wrong.

That has certainly been the feeling here on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa (population: 6,000) this week, as it has been forced to cope with more than double its own population suddenly arriving from North Africa — desperate souls emerging from flimsy, filthy deathtraps before overwhelming the modest local reception centre. On one day alone, there were 7,000 arrivals in more than 100 boats.

To get to the heart of Europe’s migration crisis, you must come here. This is the hub. And it is at breaking point.

Indeed, it has given Italian and European politicians such a shock that they have been coming here all week.

At the heart of the crisis: Robert Hardman on the Mediterranean island that has reached breaking point

Fresh hope: Triumphant migrants crowd the deck of an Italian coast guard patrol boat as it arrives at the port in Lampedusa this week

Last weekend, Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, arrived alongside the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, who promised a ‘ten-point’ plan from the EU (including ‘outreach’ to sub-Saharan African governments and more ‘legal pathways’). Even as they were talking, the boats just kept on coming — as they still do.

READ MORE: More migrants arrive in Kent and Italy as EU diplomats dismiss Keir Starmer’s ‘deluded’ Channel boats plan for sending asylum seekers back – saying the bloc’s system is already ‘broken’

A group of Channel migrants are brought ashore by the Border Force in Kent today

I count four boatloads in just one hour — their occupants from as far afield as Guinea, Sudan and Bangladesh. They have no documents and no one asks why they are here. A well-oiled operation will have them on buses to the Red Cross reception centre in 30 minutes.

Within a few days, they can expect to be on a plane or a ferry to larger reception centres on the Italian mainland where they will be processed. Some will receive what Italy calls ‘special protection’, a handful will be welcomed by other countries — though many EU states have now said they will take none of them.

Others fearing deportation will simply disappear to join the estimated 600,000 undocumented clandestini trying to find a better life elsewhere in Europe. Some will fall back on the people-smugglers and move on to other countries including the UK.

Back in Lampedusa, the locals say they have never felt lonelier, as I hear at one noisy protest rally in the main square this week.

A young woman in a black dress is close to tears as she tells us how the local hospital failed to spot her firefighter father’s cancer because of a shortage of medical facilities, while the government continues to throw vast sums of money at a failing migration operation.

Today’s hand-wringing VIP is former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, president of the Five Star party, who promises to ‘listen’.

The residents are fed up with being patronised by far-away politicians and humanitarian organisations who try to liken Lampedusa to Ellis Island, the hallowed former entry point for migrants entering America.

Another U.S. island comes to the mind of Attilio Lucia, the frustrated deputy mayor of Lampedusa, who says: ‘We refuse to be Europe’s Alcatraz!’

He was so enraged by his government’s plans to open yet another migrant camp here that his public outburst, last weekend, went viral on social media. ‘We took to the streets and we said “No”,’ he tells me. ‘If they try again, we will fight.’

Mr Lucia adds that the crisis has slashed tourism by 25 per cent over the past five years.

Seven miles long and just over a mile wide (it is just one seventh of the size of the Isle of Wight), this arid and ruggedly beautiful slab of rock is actually nearer Africa (70 miles to the south-west) than Sicily (110 miles to the north).

Hence Lampedusa is now the main conduit for the international people-smuggling cartels operating out of Libya and Tunisia.

Having fleeced people from right across Africa and Asia of their entire life savings, the smugglers give them a few square inches to squat inside a rickety open boat. There are so many of these abandoned craft cluttering this harbour that the locals cannot scrap them fast enough.

They are flat-bottomed inshore fishing vessels, between 20 ft and 30 ft in length, with no keel or lights. The only functioning piece of equipment is the outboard motor — invariably a 40-horsepower Yamaha. If it conks out, there is no back-up — not even a pair of oars.

An Italian Coast Guard vessel carrying migrants rescued at sea passes between tourist boats, on Sicilian island of Lampedusa, Italy, September 18

Migrants arrive at ‘Molo Favarolo’ in Lampedusa, southern Italy, September 18

Most of these vessels are made of wood, though some are metal, which makes them even more dangerous since, if they overturn, they just sink like a stone.

You can, at least, cling to a wooden hulk and pray, like one group of rescued Tunisians did, whom I met this week. To fill such a boat with up to 100 people and push it out to sea for 48 hours across at least 70 miles of open water is not just criminal negligence. It amounts to attempted murder, even in good weather — as it has been of late (though it turns nasty this weekend).

And the smugglers are on course for their best year ever. During my stay this week, Italy’s boat arrivals have topped 130,000 — well above the total of 105,000 for the whole of 2022, which was nearly 50 per cent up on the year before. There are still more than three months to go.

What is so astonishing to a newcomer like me is the industrial scale of the operation — and the way it has become normalised.

Late one afternoon, I watch two boats enter this small harbour in quick succession. One is the Galeone Adriana, a party boat with disco music thudding away. Price: 35 euros a head.

The other has no name — and will never go to sea again because it will now be abandoned. It is packed with exhausted, nervous, dehydrated people who have just endured one of the most dangerous and unpleasant 48-hour periods of their lives. Price: 4,500 U.S. dollars.

The two boats tie up on adjacent quaysides where the pungent whiff of old fish is a reminder that there is still a flourishing fishing industry here. Within a short time, the two sets of passengers are on dry land. The daytrippers head back to their hotels. The barefoot migrants line up for a fleet of shuttle buses which take them to the Red Cross reception centre a mile away, called the ‘Hotspot’.

Though this is not a detention centre, the media are not allowed through the steel gates. Two soldiers warn me off when I try to talk to two migrants through the perimeter fence. One is a Tunisian with his teenage son who, he says, desperately needs surgery that is unavailable in Tunisia. The other, older man, says he needs treatment for diabetes.

Built to house 400 migrants, it has 2,000 in there today and is just about coping. As we speak, the gates open and 180 migrants shuffle out in batches to fill another fleet of buses. They are being taken to Lampedusa airport for a charter flight to ‘somewhere in northern Italy’.

‘We try to put vulnerable people on flights because it is a shorter journey than the ferry,’ says Francesca Basile, the Red Cross’s head of migration.

Several have children. I am not allowed to interview the departees but stick my head inside a bus to ask where they are from and why they made this journey. Two men are from Cote d’Ivoire and another is from Guinea. I ask them in French why they are here. Two shrug and a third replies that it is ‘very complicated’.

What is abundantly clear after a few days here is that you have to leave all preconceptions behind. Ignore all the myths, from the far-Left, the far-Right and, above all, social media.

The events of last weekend have spawned countless online scare stories about gangs of migrants roaming Lampedusa, thieving and taking the law into their own hands. This is utter nonsense. They want to get out of here as soon as possible and are too exhausted to quarrel with anyone anyway.

A particularly incendiary online clip shows a local woman remonstrating with a migrant who is allegedly roasting her pet cat over a makeshift barbecue.

It is precisely the sort of thing which will drive floating voters into the hands of extremist Right-wing parties such as Germany’s AfD or France’s National Rally (National Front as it was known) in next year’s European elections.

Not only has no one on the island ever heard of the cat story but the Red Cross has no shortage of food anyway. However, there are also misleading narratives from those on the Left who insist that the majority of the arrivals are fleeing war and persecution and therefore have an automatic right to asylum or refugee status.

This week, the French interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, stated that ’60 per cent’ of migrants arriving in Lampedusa were from countries with ‘no humanitarian issue’.

I head for the main dock where several hundred migrants are lining up to take the Galaxy ferry to Sicily and then be transported across Italy to detention centres where asylum claims can be heard.

Zohirul, 35, from Rajshahi, in Bangladesh, left home over a year ago because he could not earn enough in a garment factory to sustain his wife, daughter and parents. He says he spent £2,500 on the journey to Libya via Dubai and tried to earn money there.

‘But there was not enough salary so my cousin said “Go to Europe”,’ he tells me. Zohirul therefore paid £4,500 to join 140 other men from Egypt, Niger and Pakistan on an open boat from Tripoli.

‘It was terrible. People had no water and were drinking their own urine or sea water. And we were stopped by the Libyan coast guard [funded by the Italian government]. They took our phones and our money and then sent us on our way,’ he says. He doesn’t care where he ends up now. ‘I just want to get a job and then bring my family over,’ he says.

This week, the French interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, stated that ’60 per cent’ of migrants arriving in Lampedusa were from countries with ‘no humanitarian issue’.

A Italian Coast Guard boat carry migrants tourists on boat, botto, watch, near the port of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa

Belahsame, 20, is among the Tunisians who ended up clinging to an upturned boat for two days before being rescued by the Italian coastguard. A chef by trade, he says he has made the crossing because ‘my mother is ill and my father is handicapped’. He needs income to support his siblings.

I meet Austin, 42, who used to be a soldier in Nigeria. ‘But when I left the army, the income was much worse so I needed to earn more,’ he says.

He left his wife and three children at home in Edo state and moved to Libya to work as a painter. He says that life in Libya was grim and violent. So he paid 15,000 dinars (£2,500) for a space on a 25 ft boat which brought him here last weekend. His plan is to stay in Italy and get a painting job.

I ask him for his message to the people of Europe. ‘They should make it easier for people like us to meet our dreams because life is really difficult in our countries,’ he tells me. All the above, incidentally, give me their full names but I do not want to prejudice their chances of claiming whatever immigration status they may seek at a later date.

What is very clear is that they have endured great danger. They want to work, to contribute to society and to help their families.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to argue that they are not economic migrants (of the dozens of migrants I talk to here, not one utters the word ‘asylum’). With the populations of many poor nations predicted to double by 2050, how can Europe absorb everyone who wants to follow suit?

That is the unanswerable question. For now, the Left are using the crisis to attack Giorgia Meloni’s Right-wing government yet when her coalition partner, Matteo Salvini, tried to stop the boats from landing at all, he was defeated in court. No one seems to have any convincing solutions.

Another misconception is that the people of Lampedusa don’t care. Just listen to Vito Fiorino. One night, he and his friends went out for a late-night swim and some fishing on his 30 ft boat. At first they heard what they thought were distant seagulls.

‘Then we saw the first bodies,’ he tells me outside his ice-cream shop. Those seagulls were actually the cries — in some cases, the last words — of up to 500 Eritreans on a Libyan smuggler’s boat which caught fire and capsized on a moonless night, just short of the island.

Suddenly, this party of middle-aged Italian chums found themselves in the midst of one of the worst European maritime disasters of modern times.

Though his boat had a maximum capacity of nine, Vito and his friends hauled 46 men and one woman to safety — at no small risk of capsizing themselves.

That was exactly ten years ago. Indeed, Vito will be at the midnight memorial ceremony next Monday to remember the 360 who died (including a mother and newborn baby). Vito is still psychologically scarred by that night (he has hardly swum since).

He has no answer to the crisis. I ask him if he has ever heard back from those he saved?

He is momentarily lost for words so shows me his phone. Up comes the text he received on Monday from one of those he pulled from the water that night. Solomon has gone on to build a new life as a bus driver in Sweden. The text is simply a photo of Solomon’s new-born son and a simple, heartfelt message for Vito: ‘Hello, Papa.’

No wonder tiny Lampedusa feels it has played its part for long enough.

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