Lampedusa - Europe′s shameful gateway | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 20.12.2013
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Lampedusa - Europe's shameful gateway

A small European island close to the African coast has become the embodiment of the deaths and the misery of refugees. A recent video shows inhumane conditions in the Lampedusa refugee camp.

Most of the residents of Lampedusa don't want to talk about the video that is circulating in Europe, even though the people on the small island are shocked by the images of naked people, men as well as women, being sprayed with head lice treatment out in the open.

Mario Liberatore and his wife Maria run a small hotel on Lampedusa. "There are enough doctors and nurses in the camp; they should take care of the people - that's part of their job. Whoever is responsible for this should pack their bags and go," they said.

The entrance to the refugee camp in Lampedusa is closely guarded

The entrance to the refugee camp in Lampedusa is closely guarded

The head of the camp, Cono Galipo, and some of his employees have been suspended from office by now. Since the dramatic conditions in the camp have made the headlines, the camp has been quickly cleaned up.

Until recently, more than 500 people were locked up there, instead of the officially permitted 260. Almost 200 refugees were recently brought to Sicily on a special flight.

Packed tightly

According to those responsible, it's the constant overcrowding of the detention camp, which refugees partially burned down in a 2011 riot, that caused the catastrophic conditions portrayed in the video.

In fact, the destroyed section of the camp was never rebuilt, in spite of constant new waves of refugees coming in. The bunk beds in the dorm rooms have been removed, because, according to the authorities, the iron parts of the beds can be used as weapons.

Now the refugees are sleeping in the former military barracks, squeezed next to each other on mattresses, sometimes up to one thousand of them. If the space in the remaining barracks is not enough, they have to sleep outside on plastic sheets. That recently happened when the latest migration wave swept in at the beginning of October.

The remains of the capsized boat in front of the boat cemetery in Lampedusa

The remains of the capsized boat in Lampedusa

Back then, about 1,500 refugees made it to Lampedusa alive. 366 drowned when their boat capsized right in front of the harbor entrance, causing widespread dismay in Italy and the rest of Europe.

Representatives from the EU and the Italian government looked deeply saddened when standing in front of the nearly endless row of coffins. According to Lampedusa's mayor, Giusy Nicolini, the emotional reaction is understandable, but what is hard to understand is that there were no concrete actions after the tears were shed. She says nothing has changed since.

'You have to change the asylum laws'

Nicolini thinks stopping any more refugees being transported in overcrowded fishing cutters is desperately needed. But in order to do so, she says, the asylum laws have to be changed and the refugees have to be allowed to enter Europe. Those who still come to Lampedusa have to then be brought somewhere else as quickly as possible. Within 72 hours, according to the law. But instead many immigrants are staying in the camps for weeks.

Portrait of Peter Sunday from Nigeria

Peter Sunday from Nigeria complains about inedible food at the camp in Mineo, Sicily

And the situation for refugees is dramatic in other places as well. The refugee camp in Mineo in the center of Sicily has to deal with protests time and again because the processing of asylum applications is drawn out endlessly. It can now take up to two years for an application to be processed.

The camp, built for a maximum number of 2,000 people, is currently hopelessly overcrowded with more than 4,000 immigrants. That's a dramatic situation for the people inside, Peter Sunday from Nigeria says.

He has been living here for five months. In the mornings it's still ok, he says. But in the afternoons and evenings the situation is simply unbearable. "I often have stomachaches," he said. But all he gets is a paracetamol pill every now and again.

Business opportunities

But what makes immigrants suffer every day is big business for the administrators of the camp. The Italian state and the EU pay approximately 40 euros (55 dollars) on average per migrant per day in order for them to have shelter, food, medical care and some pocket money.

A refugee in Lampedusa sitting in front of a fence

It can take up to two years until asylum applications are processed

The profit margins for the organizations working in the camps and commissioned by the Italian interior ministry are tremendous. They give out sought-after deals to suppliers, create jobs in the camps and thus secure electoral votes.

Despite its northern Italian regional focus, the political party Lega Nord, which opposes mass immigration, finds some of its strongest support in Lampedusa. The party, which drew almost a quarter of votes on the island in the 2009 European elections, said that if the refugees don't like the conditions in Italy, they are welcome to leave.

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