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Last Updated: Monday, 11 October, 2004, 04:21 GMT 05:21 UK
Asylum storm buffets holiday island
By Mike Donkin
BBC correspondent in Lampedusa

Lampedusa's harbour
A watery grave for battered boats in the island's harbour

There is a corner of the picturesque harbour at Lampedusa which is a graveyard - for the fishing boats aboard which so many migrants from North Africa have made perilous and overcrowded journeys.

They lie at crazy angles, half-sunk in the oily water. Scattered across their decks you can see blankets, odd shoes and water bottles, discarded by the lucky passengers who made it ashore.

Nearly 10,000 would-be asylum seekers have washed up on Italy's southernmost outpost so far this year. That's twice the island's population.


Until October most were shipped onward to neighbouring Sicily, where their claims for political refuge were checked.

The government must do something
Lampedusa hotelier Signor Rosario

But when numbers suddenly swelled the Italian government took more drastic measures. Migrants were despatched back handcuffed in military planes from Lampedusa direct to Libya. No questions asked.

Human rights groups and the United Nations refugee agency the UNHCR condemned this as indiscriminate and unfair.

And suddenly a holiday island that's just 20 square kilometres of rock, and which few had ever heard of, is at the centre of an international storm.

Immigrants rescued from their sinking boat
Sicily region (including Lampedusa) - 9,666 in total
Calabria region - 23 in total
Puglia region - 18 in total

Sleek, Italian coastguard cutters cruise the sea off Lampedusa to intercept the migrants' boats as they head across from the coasts of Libya and Tunisia.

The crew, immaculate in their white uniforms, train powerful binoculars from the rail and scan radar screens in the wheelhouse. But they cannot stem the migration tide.

"Every day and every night our patrol boats are out here," harbour master Michel Niosi says. "And we have planes from Sicily searching too.

"It's our job not just to stop these people but to save them from drowning, and we do save many. But to prevent them coming?" He shakes his head. "We can't do that. There must be political agreement between Europe and these African states."

Something needs to be done fast, the islanders of Lampedusa will tell you. They would like to see the back of the "boat people" for good, they say, because news coverage of these uninvited visitors is ruining the one and only industry here - tourism.

Tourism hit

Signor Rosario is planting rows of parasols outside his beachfront hotel as he puts the concerns of everyone.

"The economy of this island depends on tourists - 100%. When they hear about this problem they don't want to come here.

"The government must do something. It must close the door to these people. Close the door and help them in another way."

But how to do that? Hundreds of thousands of people have already made their way from the war-torn and the poorest nations of Africa to attempt to cross the long Mediterranean coast that is now Europe's most fragile frontline. More will surely follow.

Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is taking what steps he can. He has flown to meet the Libyan President Colonel Gaddafi in Tripoli.

And Italy, along with Britain and Germany, has also promoted a controversial plan to build holding camps in North Africa and process migrants before they set out to sea.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Colonel Gaddafi
Berlusconi has held urgent talks with Gaddafi on immigration

That scheme seriously worries several leading humanitarian agencies, who say it would expose already vulnerable people to new risks.

"Libya and other countries where these camps might be sited could not be guaranteed to respect international agreements on how to protect refugees," Juergen Humburg of the UNHCR told me on Lampedusa. "It would be dangerous for these people."

It is not possible to ask the migrants how they view all of this on the island itself. The old stone building that has turned into a detention centre has heavy bars on every window, high steel gates and spirals of razor wire. Not even aid workers get inside to meet the inmates.

Those who were earlier allowed to go to Sicily do have stories to tell however: Stories of the risks they took in travelling across Africa to go to Lampedusa, and of many hours spent on open boats in the scorching sun with no food or water.

They are keen as well to explain what drove them to this.

In the Southern Sicilian town of Agrigento 60 or more men from countries like Sudan, The Ivory Coast, Ethiopia and Eritrea queue up with their trays to be served lunch of pasta and chicken by cheerful local volunteers.

All are quick to deny they are economic migrants.

Dangerous crossing

A tall Eritrean in his mid-20s has a typical tale. "I was a soldier with the army and I fought for six years," he says. "My captain told me to shoot men who had deserted from the war, and I was not willing. So I had to run away.

Illegal immigrants are escorted onto a plane by Italian police
Illegal immigrants are escorted onto a plane by Italian police
"I paid $1,000 to cross to Lampedusa from Tunisia but something was wrong with the boat so we had to go back. I had to pay another $1,000 to try again - that time from Libya.

"It was so dangerous on the sea, but I had no choice. They would not let me stay in Libya or Tunisia."

So are his troubles over now? No, he is grateful to the social workers at the centre and to the Italian government for their hospitality but still does not have permanent refugee papers.

And it will be some months before his appeal to stay is finally processed.

"Until now I haven't got political asylum and I don't know if I will," he says. "While we all wait here it is very hard. We can eat but we must sleep on the street. We have hardly any clothes and no money. We cannot get a job when we are in this situation.

"I wish that Europe, that all nations were aware of our problems."

At the centre that evening a dozen of the migrants sit at tables to learn some Italian - basic greetings and how to ask for a cup of tea.

There is laughter as they get the phrases wrong, light relief as their wait for the chance of a new life goes on.

Italy seeks Libya immigrant deal
07 Oct 04  |  Europe
Many drown as migrant ship sinks
04 Oct 04  |  Europe

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