‘We must defend our territory’: on the frontline of Europe’s migrant woes

Paul Wood reports from Lampedusa, Africa’s gateway to Italy


From our November 2023 issue

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Lampedusa, Italy

The motorcade carrying Italy’s prime minister is being held up by a wild-eyed pirate. With a bushy black beard, sun-blasted face, tattooed forearms and a single earring, he stands in front of the convoy of a dozen police cars, extending a flattened palm. Blue lights flash, engines idle and somewhere behind blacked-out windows sit Giorgia Meloni, the prime minister, and her important guest, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission. The pirate is Giacomo Sferlazzo, leader of the protests that began on the island of Lampedusa after around 100 small boats carrying…

Lampedusa, Italy

The motorcade carrying Italy’s prime minister is being held up by a wild-eyed pirate. With a bushy black beard, sun-blasted face, tattooed forearms and a single earring, he stands in front of the convoy of a dozen police cars, extending a flattened palm. Blue lights flash, engines idle and somewhere behind blacked-out windows sit Giorgia Meloni, the prime minister, and her important guest, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission. The pirate is Giacomo Sferlazzo, leader of the protests that began on the island of Lampedusa after around 100 small boats carrying migrants arrived there on a single day in September. Really he’s a local musician, professional puppeteer and, as he describes himself, a Marxist-Leninist follower of Antonio Gramsci. The fact that he’s made common cause with the island’s deputy mayor, a member of the right-wing Lega Party, demonstrates how the growing number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean could upend politics in Italy, and perhaps Europe too.

Today Sferlazzo is at the head of a small crowd of fifty or sixty people. It’s not clear how many are supporters and how many are just there to see the show. A man calls out “Buffoon!” but others drown out the insult with jeers. A female Carabinieri officer tries to talk Sferlazzo into getting out of the way. She is joined by men from Meloni’s security detail, all wearing identical light blue suits with bulges under their jackets. Sferlazzo shouts into his microphone that his group just wants to meet Meloni. “We want to speak democratically… We’re tired of this island being used as a catwalk for everyone.” There are murmurs of agreement and the crowd closes in. People don’t like the way politicians turn up on the island, hold a press conference about the “migrant crisis” and leave, solving nothing. There’s the meaty thunk of a car door being slammed and Meloni is striding toward the melee.

This seems brave, even reckless. There’s what looks like the beginnings of a scuffle between Sferlazzo and the security men, followed by a lot of jostling and some angry shouts. But this is Meloni’s issue and, in that sense, these are her people. She campaigned for office a year ago calling for a naval blockade in the Mediterranean. She got elected on a promise to stop illegal immigration — she just hasn’t succeeded. The hundred boats that reached Lampedusa in a single September day brought more than 7,000 migrants, more than the island’s population of about 6,000. A state of emergency had to be declared. Lampedusa has become the symbol of Italy’s — and Europe’s — failure to deal with the migrant issue. But Meloni thinks she can fix the problem, that it’s still a vote-winner. Sferlazzo seems surprised to be actually meeting the prime minister and is slightly muted. She tells him she’s not hiding: “As usual, I put my face on things.” He asks her for a week without migrants’ boats or politicians, so they can celebrate the annual festival of the Madonna of Lampedusa, held each September. “We need health and peace.” “Yeah, well,” she says, “health,” and points up at the sky, as if to say that is God’s responsibility. As for peace on the island — that is, stemming the flow of migrants — “We’re doing everything possible.”

Meloni and von der Leyen are in Lampedusa for about two hours before holding their press conference and flying back to Rome. They go to see the hundred or so small boats abandoned and piled up in the harbor, pitiful-looking craft made of crudely welded sheets of metal. They make what local media report is a ten-minute visit to the reception center for migrants — known as “hotspots” in Italy — where there are still 2,000 people lodged in a place built for 400. These people are anxiously waiting to be taken off the island in Italian navy ships; they will go first to Sicily, where the rest have already been sent. Now, even though as many as 12,000 migrants have arrived over the past week, there are none to be seen in the town of Lampedusa or in the port. Journalists are not allowed into the hotspots but migrants are sent out for medical treatment, so I go to the local hospital. As video of the arrivals made clear, most of the migrants were men. But in the emergency room, there is a small group of women and children, so tired they can barely speak.

A young woman is lying on a stretcher. In a hoarse whisper, she tells me her name is Awa and she is five months pregnant. Her group’s drinking water ran out after the first day on the boat and they were at sea for a week before being rescued. She sinks back down, too exhausted to continue, but her aunt, Jenaba, takes over the story. They are from Mali and will leave Italy as soon as they can, for France — they are French speakers. Jenaba wears a tracksuit, but back home she earns a living making traditional West African clothing and she plans to start the same business in Paris. She has four children still in Mali, in their teens and twenties. She will send for them as soon as she can.

My guide here is Moussa, who came to Italy in a smuggler’s boat six years ago and now works for the local authorities. He explains that women making the perilous journey without their husbands are usually fleeing violent or otherwise bad marriages. Most are Muslim and sometimes the husband has a new second, third or fourth wife and no more use for the first. Jenaba is traveling in a group of three women; she says it cost her €3,000 to get from Mali to the European Union. She is reluctant to say how she got the money. Moussa says poor migrants often borrow from the dangerous smuggling mafias. “They will never talk about this.”

Moussa got himself from his home in Guinea to Libya and then gave the traffickers €850 for his ticket to Italy (less than the women we spoke to because they were transported first over land from West Africa). His boat was one of the larger ones. He tells me there were 150 people on it, which — he quickly does the arithmetic — meant €127,500 for the traffickers. For a single boat, a single crossing. Money like that can buy a lot. Moussa says he and the other migrants were seen on to the boat by a uniformed colonel from the Libyan coastguard. The man virtually saluted. Moussa is in his late twenties, a math graduate, and in his few years here has learned to speak flawless Italian. He tells me the biggest mistake the arrivals make is failing to learn the language — closing themselves off in ghettos and avoiding contact with Italian culture. “We have to make 80 percent [of the effort to assimilate] and the Italians 20 percent,” he says: it’s their country.

A lot of Moussa’s job is interpreting between the Italian emergency services and the migrants, who speak a mixture of French and tribal languages. Among the new arrivals in the past week, he helped a mother whose newborn baby died at sea. There has been mention of this in media reports but no details. Moussa tells me what happened. The mother’s name is Claudel. She is twenty-eight; she came from Cameroon, heavily pregnant and alone. She joined a small boat that left Tunisia on a Wednesday morning and gave birth that Thursday evening. Other women on the boat delivered the baby, though none was a midwife. It was clear straight away that something was badly wrong, but no one knew what to do. The baby did not survive long. Moussa thinks that was because the traffickers’ boats are cheap things, built without shelter from the elements. “It’s very cold at sea. Yes, that’s why the child died.”

The most awful thing he tells me is that the woman clung to the dead child for another two days and nights, until the boat was rescued by an Italian coastguard vessel. It was left to Italian medics to cut the umbilical cord. They took the baby away and put the woman on a helicopter to have emergency surgery on the mainland. Moussa says he has never seen anyone so grief-stricken. “She cried without blinking, with open eyes. Her tears kept falling and falling.” The baby’s body was put in a small white coffin and taken to the island’s cemetery, where the bodies of many other migrants lie. “The mother will never return to Lampedusa.”

Among those in the emergency room is a little boy of four, sitting listlessly on his mother’s lap. As with everyone we speak to, their boat ran out of fresh water on the first day. Driven mad by thirst, the child drank from the sea. He has been sick ever since. An Italian woman, presumably visiting a relative, goes over to the food machine and buys a Kinder chocolate bar for the boy, pressing it into his hand. He looks at it dully but makes no effort to unwrap it. After a few moments it slips from his grasp to the floor. He doesn’t move. His mother picks it up and nods her thanks at the Italian woman, who looks anguished.

While the people of Lampedusa have been protesting about the migrants, they have treated the migrants themselves with compassion. Islanders gave out shoes, clothes and food at the town’s church, my translator among them. “We emptied our refrigerators.” She doesn’t want to be named here. The mass migration is a difficult issue for many on the island to discuss in public – they don’t like being accused of racism. She feels divided about the migrants, sympathizing with their desire for a better life, but also wanting her government to stop the boats. For one thing, it’s thought that around 2,000 men, women and children have drowned while trying to cross from North Africa so far this year. “The Mediterranean has become a cemetery. So many people are dying. We do not want to be accomplices in this extermination.”

My translator goes on to say that while money is spent on migrants, the island’s school is “crumbling”, and cancer patients go to the mainland because the hospital doesn’t have the right equipment. The continual crisis caused by the landings bring attention and money, but nothing changes. People gather around and a lady in her late forties says it’s an “invasion.” The thousands of young men who spilled out of the port and into the town might be good people, she says, but “We do not know who they are. Criminals also came. We cannot let our kids go out to play; we cannot let our elderly parents stay in the house alone. We keep our doors closed. We live in fear.”

Everyone nods when my translator says that Lampedusa can’t be expected to cope any longer. “We have been living with this for thirty years. But we are a small island.” Another woman, who makes a living renting vacation apartments, says she’s worried that the migrants will kill the island’s tourist trade, and then they will have nothing. The woman’s husband speaks about what’s really worrying them. The islanders believe the Italian government is planning to build a camp for 3,000 migrants on Lampedusa, a “tentopolis.” Protesters turned back a navy ship that they said was carrying the tents and other equipment. The man believes that any permanent presence of migrants on Lampedusa will be only the start and soon the islanders will be outnumbered. “We must defend our territory. We must defend it at all costs.”

The tentopolis is the issue that created Giacomo Sferlazzo. He tells me the government is steadily militarizing the island to accommodate the migrants, and that Lampedusa will become a “prison.” He has called a meeting in the main square, where he sits at a table and theatrically rips up a ballot paper. “I do not feel represented by the Italian or the European political class. I do not want to entrust my life to these people…” His solution is for would-be migrants to be able to apply for asylum from their home countries and then be put on humanitarian flights. Any picked up at sea would be taken straight to the mainland — they would never come to Lampedusa. The migrants would be sent not just to Europe but to all the Western countries. “The reason people are running away from Africa is because the West historically destroyed, plundered, raped and enslaved it.” Most of the crowd probably don’t share his analysis, but they like the idea that the migrants wouldn’t be Lampedusa’s problem anymore, or even Italy’s. Prime Minister Meloni, too, wants an EU solution to a problem that is on the EU’s border, with everyone sharing the burden. But when the French president, Emmanuel Macron, said “very sincerely to all our Italian friends” that he would stand by Italy, his interior minister sent more gendarmes to the border between the two countries to turn back migrants. And even before the surge in Lampedusa, Germany suspended its deal to take in some of the migrants arriving in Italy.

With more than 130,000 crossing the Mediterranean so far this year, the EU’s von der Leyen declared in Lampedusa: “We decide who enters and does not enter Europe and not the traffickers.” Meloni said approvingly that never before had such tough words been spoken by an EU president. It was a “Copernican revolution” in migration policy. No longer would the talk just be about how to redistribute illegal migrants around Europe, but about how to stop the boats. In fact, von der Leyen sounded barely lukewarm about a naval blockade. For the time being, that has been subcontracted to the Tunisians and the Libyans, bribed to turn back the migrants.

The Tunisians could get more than €1 billion in aid from the EU. It’s a sum that reflects fears the Tunisian dictatorship could collapse, removing all restraint on the traffickers. Italy’s intelligence services are said to have told Meloni that there are 900,000 people in Tunisia waiting to cross. While Italy has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world — 1.24 births for every woman — Africa has the highest. In Mali, there are six births for every woman. By the middle of the century, Nigeria could overtake the US as the world’s third most populous country, with 400 million people. The continent might have another billion people by then, 2.5 billion in all. And, if the science on climate change is correct, hundreds of millions of them will be in places that will become uninhabitable. This may be only the beginning of the migrant crisis.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s November 2023 World edition. 

Paul Wood was a BBC foreign correspondent for 25 years, in Belgrade, Athens, Cairo, Jerusalem, Kabul and Washington DC. He has won numerous awards, including two US Emmys for his coverage of the Syrian civil war.

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