‘Journalists take pictures and nothing changes’

“Lots of journalists come and take pictures and nothing changes. So you don’t need to take pictures.”

On hearing about the latest deaths off the Italian island of Lampedusa last month, I was struck by the prescience of these words. In the last decade, tens of thousands have died trying to reach the European Union in the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. Just last year 60 Syrian refugees drowned in one such tragedy. Every last death has been avoidable, and every last death is attributable.

Yasin, the man who made the comment, was Eritrean, like many of those who died off the coast of Lampedusa, but he made the same journey and survived.  He survived and learned to feel unwelcome in Europe. When he told me not to take pictures of his camp, buried in a field in France, he showed that he had begun to learn something of this Europe, the one so different from the Europe of his dreams.

Read the rest of this article here over at openDemocracy.net.

I reported from Lampedusa and Palermo back in 2011. You can read some of my reports on refugees and paperless migrants here, here and here.

A refugee’s Libyan nightmare

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

Italy –  part II

What is this post about? Read part I on Italy here.

Before the Arab Spring, and before the Tunisian people rose up in anger, Lampedusa was silent. When I visit early in January 2011 the stream of sub-Saharan African refugees and migrants who once used the sleepy island as a port of entry to Europe have disappeared. A quiet life resumed for the Italian island’s 6,000 inhabit­ants. Once again visitors were moneyed tour­ists and not destitute explorers.

High up the craggy hills of the small island stands the desolate 850-place immigration reception centre, once home to 1,800 migrants as they waited to be processed into the European Union, or deported back across the sea to Africa. Islanders say the centre closed after inmates set fire to it during riots in the summer of 2010. lampedusa_italy

Before the silence, people from all over Af­rica entered Europe through similar Italian and Spanish islands in the Mediterranean, their determination unruffled by the thou­sands who drowned at sea before them. In 2008 nearly 40,000 migrants arrived in Lampedusa; yet numbers dwindled to single digits in 2009 and 2010. Why did they stop coming?

The answer can be found in the European Union’s asylum and immigration third country policy, an effort to build special partnerships with governments in countries whose na­tionals try to enter Europe irregularly.

The dramatic drop in people using Lampedusa as a way into Europe was a direct result of the Ital­ian government’s decision to create a special partnership with Libya. The Friendship Treaty between Libya and Italy was signed in 2008. Libya’s side of the deal included preventing all asylum seekers and migrants getting to Italy. The Libyans, one of the few coun­tries in the world not signed up to the Refu­gee Convention, were chillingly efficient.

“When we came to Libya I thought that we were free, but we were not free,” says Abdarrazaq (pictured), a 26-year-old Somali refugee living in Sicily. 

Abdarrazaq, Somali refugee

The softly spoken economics gradu­ate travelled to Italy via Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya. It took 10 days to cross the Sahara desert, packed into a 4×4 car with 29 other frightened people, all terrified of being caught without pa­pers. On arrival in Libya the situation worsened.

“We were put under house arrest,” he says. “There was a man who captured us and said if you don’t pay $600 you die.” While unprepared for the violence, Ab­darrazaq had expected this, and carried plenty of cash to bribe officials. Abdarrazaq could be described as middle class. As a teacher in Somalia, he was not rich enough to immigrate to Kenya, as his wealthier countrymen could, but he earned enough to save for his clandestine journey to Europe.

He is still shaken by what happened to him in Libya, and not just the brutality of the country’s border guards, but by the treatment he received from ordinary Libyans. “All Libya [is] like that. They capture [us] and they say to you if you don’t pay the money, you stay here, in his house. In this house, there is a family. This is normal how they do it because they get money from [migrants].”

The Libyans who abducted the group Abdarrazaq was travelling with in Ajdabiya, north Libya, beat them until they agreed to pay up.

“One per­son, one man got his leg broken. He refused to do what they say. Then finally he paid $400.”

This was not the only time Abdar­razaq was kidnapped as he made his way across Libya. He was captured and beaten by po­lice officers and imprisoned for three days until he handed over $1,000. After several weeks, he was finally able to leave Tripoli on a boat bound for Italy carrying around 300 other migrants. Those without cash to bribe rogue officers and smugglers, were left to languish in Libyan jails or abandoned in the desert.

Abdarrazaq’s story seems fantastic, but his account corresponds with numerous reports from the UNHCR and other human rights’ groups, all documenting Libya’s brutal treatment of migrants. I met a young Eri­trean refugee working for Caritas in Calais who could not discuss the “horrific stories” from his time in Libya.

Though Muammar al-Gadaffi is dead and gone, it is unlikely his policy of pushing back migrants and asylum seekers crossing Libya on their way to Europe will end. The Libyan Na­tional Transit Council has promised the Italian government that once stability has returned, the ‘push-back’ of migrants will resume. The killing and hounding of black African migrants mistaken for mercenaries during the Libyan revolution last year indicate that the violence and abductions are also likely to continue.

Italy’s Libyan solution

Jan/Feb 2011 In 2008 nearly 40,000 migrants entered Europe through Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island in the Mediterranean with a population of 6,000. During this period people migrating from all over Africa chose to enter Europe via Italian and Spanish islands in the Mediterranean, despite the deaths at sea of the thousands who had come before them.

At this time Lampedusa had also gained a reputation for its overcrowded reception centres – in one centre 1,800 people shared a space meant for 850 – and chaotic immigration administration. Like several other European countries, Italy’s panicked reaction to irregular migration often defied human rights laws and shocked NGOs. Even politicians felt compelled to comment:

“The island of Lampedusa is a symbol of Fortress Europe, an example of extreme barbarity, and a metaphor for the criminalisation of innocent men and women.”

This is the damning verdict from Guisto Canatania, an Italian Member of the European Parliament, after a visit to Lampedusa in 2005.

In the summer of 2008, Italy’s prime minister solved the problem through a wide ranging deal with Libya’s dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi. The so-called Friendship Treaty included a promise by Libya to stop asylum seekers and migrants getting to Italy. The Libyans were chillingly efficient.

By 2009 Médecins Sans Frontières left Lampedusa because so few migrants were arriving and Human Rights Watch reported that the reception centre once bursting was now empty. The tourists of Lampedusa got their beaches back, no longer blemished by wretched Africans, but the suffering of the migrants did not end. Many of those caught by Libyan police trying to get to Europe were imprisoned or dumped in the desert where many died of thirst or hunger. Libya’s mistreatment of migrants and asylum seekers is well documented by the UNHCR and Human Rights Watch.

When researching my project, I was told the notorious reception centre had been closed after riots and fire last summer, and that few immigrants made it to the island. If they did, they were shipped immediately to reception centres in Sicily. I decided to go anyway.

I arrived in Lampedusa, about a week after Tunisia’s former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled and so witnessed the first boats of Tunisians arriving on the island. I’d been sitting on some rocks idly waiting for sunset, after failing to illicit much reaction from locals about their once thriving migrant population, when I saw a tiny boat on the horizon.

A boat carrying refugees from Tunisia arrives on the Italian island of Lampedusa.

It was the third boatload of Tunisians to arrive in Lampedusa since Ben Ali’s fall. I hitched a ride to where the Italian coast guard were bundling the Tunisians into a small minibuses, but once again I came up against the militancy of European immigration management. I am told to leave the area where the men are being checked over because it is military restricted.

Tunisians being treated by Italian coast guards

(As I write up these notes, the world’s media is reporting the arrival of thousands of Tunisians in Lampedusa. The Italian government’s narrative that hordes of Africans are flooding its borders (a theory dismissed by the UNHCR) mean it is now imperative that dramatic pictures of boatloads of Tunisians are beamed to the rest of the world.)

Even before I left Lampedusa, when the number of refugee arrivals was less than a hundred rather than thousands, the island’s police struggled to cope. Determined to keep the reception centre closed, the coast guard shipped people immediately to Sicily by ferry or made them stay in local hotels. In the weeks following my visit, at least 5,000 Tunisian refugees have arrived in Lampedusa. A photo journalist I met on the island tells me that many are sleeping on the streets because there is nowhere for them to go.

The day after the 32 Tunisian men arrive, I wait at Lampedusa’s tiny airport from where I’ve been told they will board a 7.30am flight to Palermo.

The airport is small, almost claustrophobic, about the size of a corner shop. On one side are two check-in desks, on the other is a security barrier and a metre from that is the door leading to the plane. So when an officer from the Guardia di Financa (Italy’s coastguard) enters the airport, claps his hands three times and ushers in 32 Tunisians, everyone notices. Most of the men are quite young, in their late teens or early twenties. They carry their belongings in small plastic carrier bags. Two policemen herd them over to check in. They look exhausted, red eyed and hunched over; others appear relieved.

The airport is silent as everyone gapes at the men in astonishment. The pilot says from Palermo, the refugees will be taken to a reception centre in Porto Empedocle, Sicily. It’s the first time in all his years flying to and from the tiny island that he has carried ‘boat people’ (as the islanders call them), he adds.

Under the surly gaze of the guards, I try to speak to one of the Tunisian men. He explains that he and his friends left Tunisia because “the police are violent”. I approached him because I thought he looked less stricken than some of the other men, but the relief I thought I saw in his face was not there. He left his country partly because of the fallout from Ben Ali’s departure, but also because there is simply no work. The revolution hasn’t changed that, of course. I am not happy, he says, my family are in Tunisia.

Tunsian man who just arrived on Italian island of Lampedusa.

The general view among the men is that they will work in Italy. Under Ben Ali it was difficult for many Tunisians to leave the country and most couldn’t afford papers to do so legally. But, according to Mario, a Lampedusan resident, a lot of Tunisians have a rose-tinted view of Italy. When he last visited Tunisia, he was surprised to discover the dominant presence of Italian culture, such as Italian TV Channels and shops. Like many Italians themselves, he says, Tunisians have been fed a false image of Italy.