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Lampedusa: gateway to Europe


(Vatican Radio) Pope Francis has chosen the Island of Lampedusa as the destination of the very first apostolic journey of his papacy. During his half-day stay there the Pope laid a wreath in the sea to remember the tens of thousands of migrants who have lost their lives whilst crossing the Mediterranean, he celebrated Mass with the islanders, met with some migrants and visited the local parish. Lampedusa is a place we have all heard of because it is so often in the news, but what do we know about the Island itself? Where exactly is it? How many people live there?
Lampedusa, part of the Sicilian province of Agrigento, is the largest island of the Italian Pelagie Islands. It’s the southernmost tip of Italy, closer to Tunisia (which is about 113 km away) than it is to Sicily itself (176 km away).
Lampedusa has a population of nearly 5,000 people. Its main industries are fishing, agriculture and tourism. In summer it is a tourist attraction with its clear waters and unspoilt beaches.
Since the early 2000s, the island has become a primary European entry point for migrants, mainly from Africa.
In 2011, during the exodus caused by unrests in many North African countries during the Arab Spring, the number of immigrants far surpassed the number of Islanders.
By May 2011, more than 35,000 immigrants had arrived on the island from Tunisia and Libya. By the end of August, 48,000 had arrived.
The temporary immigrant reception center of Lampedusa, which had already come under criticism by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that stated it was inadequate, was so overcrowded thousands of people were sleeping outdoors and in shelters provided by the local parish and by ordinary Lampedusa inhabitants.
But to find out more, Vatican Radio’s Linda Bordoni spoke to Giulia Cirillo, a graduate student doing research on women and migration. She travelled to Lampedusa twice this year as part of her dissertation research….

Listen to the full interview… RealAudioMP3
Giulia explains that Lampedusa is in fact the Southernmost part of Italian territory. “There are no direct flights, it’s very remote. It’s almost twice as close to North Africa than it is to Italy. I think people who live there feel very far away from Italy”.

Giulia says she had the occasion to visit the immigrant reception center of Lampedusa. She describes it as being a very basic facility, meant just to welcome refugees and give them shelter for the first 48 hours or so. “Unfortunately, a lot of the time people are kept there for much longer”. She says if you stay there for a long time it could almost feel “prison-like”.

Giulia points out that the center is just meant as a primary welcoming structure and it is “geared to giving people the first medical attention they may need if they come off the boat dehydrated or that sort of thing”. And then, she says, people get sent to other facilities where they can request asylum. So decisions regarding the status of the refugees are actually made elsewhere, on Sicily or on the mainland.

How about the islanders themselves? What are their feelings towards the refugees? “The general feeling towards the refugees is that they are people who need help. The people of Lampedusa are very clear about the humanitarian element of the arrival of migrants and don’t have a lot of time for the political intricacies of whether they should be in Italy or not” And she says: “that’s really great because a lot of the time in the political intricacies the human element get lost”. She says her impression is that “it has also been very trying for them in the last two years. Particularly in 2011 the situation became very difficult to live with, so there is a mixture of patience but also a kind of long-suffering disillusionment for the lack of support from Italian authorities in dealing with the crises as the y come along”.

The Mayor and other authorities Giulia spoke to expressed the same kind of feelings as those of the general poputaion: “that it would be good to get more support from the central Italian authorities and that the situation shouldn’t be a crisis every time”. She says that they feel that “If this is the role Lampedusa has taken on, within this dynamic of migration in Southern Europe, then it needs to be equipped for it.”

Giulia explains that although the facility has separate areas for women and children, the situation is quite complicated because often family groups want to stay together and sometimes different ethnicities have to be separated.

The migrants Giulia spoke to had already been in Lampedusa for a month or so – in this facility that is not equipped for long term situations. She says that “ their main problem was that they had thought the arrival in Italy was the end of a journey. It was quite heart-rendering to see how it was actually going to be just the beginning of another very difficult journey towards possible permanence in Italy. I think the main thing was a dawning worry about the issues they would still have to face and the realisation that arriving in Italy is not the end, the arrival to a safe place, but is the beginning of a lot of other things.

Giulia who was in Lampedusa during the conclave, remembers how the Mayor and others were saying how incredible it would be should the new Pope want to visit. But they were also saying it would be practically impossible “because the island doesn’t have a big enough airport or the space to accommodate a papal entourage”. So, she says “I think it is absolutely fantastic that Pope Francis has decided to go anyway..”.

Summing up, Giulia says the most powerful moments of her stay on Lampedusa were when she witnessed a landing and had the first-hand feeling of how “on Lampedusa this great story of migration becomes a daily reality. It was literally embodied in the form of people stepping on to the jetty. And when you think about what’s behind that, and how some incredible stories become very, very concrete when theyese people arrive on Lampedusa it is quite moving”.

Giulia expresses her belief regarding the importance of raise awareness as to this reality. “ Lampedusa is one of the central nodes of this phenomenon which is becoming ever more important for the whole of Europe”.