Lampedusa, the promised land

In the last ten days two tragedies struck the island of Lampedusa, in southern Italy.  They both involved the death of migrants who, after having paid several thousand dollars to get on a cardboard boat, drowned in Italian waters.  The first had an evil component to it: as soon as the crew members saw the lights of the Guardia Costiera (coast guard) they started to whip the men, women and children to force them out of the boat.  It was night, a lot of them weren’t able to swim, and so it was that, a few metres -mind you, not hundreds of metres, just metres- from the Italian coast 13 people died.

A couple of days ago an even bigger (in terms of number, not of atrocity) tragedy struck the same shores.  A boat carrying around 300 people exhaled her last breath and sunk.  To-date some 115 corpses have been fished from the sea but the professional dives who went down to check the shipwreck reported that there could easily be another 100 still trapped in the boat.

In Italy the law contemplates the crime of “Illegal Immigration”, if a man or woman are found residing/working illegally in the country the standard procedure is to detain them in a temporary centre until they can be deported (It takes several months and more than once the centres have been the object of severe reprimand by Amnesty International).   Of course this is the standard procedure, then there are other, more “flexible” ones… e Come on, my frriiiend… We are Italians! Big heart and deep pockets!

Those who are caught facilitating the arrival of illegal immigrants i.e. the people smuggler  but also anyone who hides, hires, employs or simply rescues (a man or woman who could potentially be) an illegal immigrant, go -or should go- to trial and then to jail (again, we are Italian, the conditional mood is necessary…).  For the smugglers this only applies if they are found with actual people on the boat, if not the Italian system turns a blind eye to the allegedly stranded Albanian, Egyptian, Romanian fishermen who went out fishing one night and magically found themselves on the shores of Italy.  This minor detail is the reason why the fare only covers the price to the Italian waters and not actually to the shore.  Smugglers want to have time to leave if the police are on them, and if the people don’t want to get off in the middle of the ocean because it’s cold or because they can’t swim or again because they have a newborn baby… well take the whip Johnny!  

In the general commotion of the dozens of coffins in the hangar of Lampedusa there have been tears, mea culpa (too few) and a vast display of friendship and international love. Those who scared us yesterday, today are our friends.  Many deaths are more poignant than one death and, as if those who landed on our shores today were different to those who did it a month ago, these one were “pardonned”.

(Pardon is a word that, as far as I’m concerned, is technically used for those who have been convicted and then, due to particular circumstances, pardonned.  It is generally not used for asylum seekers.  According to the international law they don’t have to be pardonned because, technically, running away from a country at war or where your safety and that of your family are a stake, is not a crime).

My firend Fabrizio posted a sentence today on facebook “I’m a migrant”.  He’s right. We come from a country where 40% of youth is unemployed, where a woman dies of a violent death every 60 hours, where those of us who want to succeed… leave.  We, the other side of Italy, the “migrants” (which in our case is “expats” because we are white and because we have fancy jobs) leave our country because there seems to be no space for us there.  I have worked in Ethiopia long enough to see why someone may consider a dangerous trip and the possibility of being caught and sent back appealing: if you don’t die and if you are not sent back you have a chance to survive.  You children may actually go to school (and not get raped on the way there), you could even get the chance to visit a hospital once in your lifetime, for a change.

Of course we come from a country where some parliamentarians pride themselves of having thrown bananas at out first black Minister (an excellent Minister for Integration and, ad interim, for Equal Opportunitie, for the record), so I don’t expect the political world to do anything more than being indignant and turn their heads to the other side.  But I was very pleased to see that after years of protests the citizens of Lampedusa are beginning to be more sympathetic.  In the last few months I have heard more than once about private citizens throwing themselves in the sea to go and fish out those who were drowning, or simply offer support once they were ashore.  Well, today I’m really proud of my fellow citizens who have challenged a system and the law by helping those who were technically outlaws.

Lampedusa is the gateway of Europe and it’s easy for all of us to judge those who, over the years, have complained about the constant and never ending flow of immigrants, dead and alive.  They were there, they saw and lived it every day and if history teaches us anything, it’s that change is a process.  The citizens of Lampedusa weren’t like that five years ago but they are like that now, to me it’s already astonishing that this repentine change only took a generation to occur!


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