Lampedusa: the 'forgotten' island

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A group of Syrian migrants on the Italian island of Lampedusa have finally been able to leave to seek asylum in Sicily.

They are able to apply for refugee status, in accordance with European law, particularly the Dublin II Regulation. It aims to quickly determine the EU Member State responsible for an asylum claim. This is usually the first state through which the asylum seeker enters the EU which, in this case, is Italy.

Many may not wish to apply for asylum in Italy, but find it preferable to staying in an overcrowded camp in Lampedusa.

But the overall feeling is one of happiness, as one Syrian man explained: “I can’t express my feelings in words. They’re indescribable. We are so happy God helped us to come here. We were so tired from the trip across the sea and from being in the camp…Now we are much better and I hope our future will be better still.”

They are accomodated in a ‘first help camp,’ meaning that people should, in theory, only stay for a maximum of three days.

However, the reality is vastly different. Migrants will stay in Lampedusa for 20 days on average, with some remaining there for four to five weeks or more.

Large groups of Syrians have been known to go on hunger strike against the difficult conditions in the camp. They have seen people who arrived after them leaving before them, which has caused huge tension among the migrants.

The two principal buildings in the camp are designed to host 254 people (204 men and 50 women). However, records show this number being exceeded on a regular basis.

Federico Miragliotta, the Director of the centre described how far they are making their resources stretch: “In front of the main male-only building is the so-called ‘A2 Hall.’ This former office building has been emptied and adapted to host another 200 people,” he said.

“Of course, the camp is still overcrowded. In recent rainy days, when we had an even higher number of immigrants, we offered people shelter in our buses and minibuses.”

There has been a recent influx of pregnant women and women with babies: some left their countries with their babies, but many others are raped during the journey, which can last more than a year.

So, a little storage room has been made into a type of nursery, with a changing table and a toilet. It is in this place in particular that we feel the lack of means available for these people.

In the camp there is no television, and the migrants have little way of knowing what is going on in their countries.

But there are some activities for the children. The Italian branch of Save the Children, in collaboration with Caritas, manage a tent – the first of its kind in Europe – aiming to give the children some time away from the overcrowded camp.

Between January and November 2013, the Lampedusa coastguards have saved at least 13,000 people, most of whom were migrants, arriving on tramp steamers.

In good weather conditions and with a good boat, the journey from the Tunisian coast to the island lasts an hour and a half. From the Libyan coast the journey is around three hours, making Lampedusa the first port of call for many migrants.

It is a double-edged sword. The migrants are away from the dangers posed in their home countries, but are now trapped on Lampedusa. Many dream of a new life in Northern Europe; in Scandinavian countries for the most part.

But the current EU rules do not allow them to do that, leaving many no option but to arrive illegally and hide, waiting for a safe path to the north.

But the 5,000 Lampedusan locals also feel trapped on their island. They have had the same immigration problems on their shoulders for 20 or 30 years.

However, they feel abandoned by the Italian and EU authorities, concerned that their efforts to help are not being recognised.

Locals are also concerned about revenue for the island. Tourism currently provides its main source of income. However, there are fears that the immigration emergency will scare this business away, leaving them with little or no way to support themselves.

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