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Italian migrant island at risk of 'collapse'

September 18, 2017

The mayor of an island that was once a symbol for refugee compassion has warned it is descending into anarchy. His political opponents accuse him of stoking up fear and overstating the problem.

Refugees and migrants are seen floating in an overcrowded rubber boat as they wait to be assisted by search and rescue crew members from NGO Sea-Eye on May 19, 2017 in international waters off the coast of Libya.
Image: picture alliance/dpa/NurPhoto/C. Marquardt

The mayor of the Italian island of Lampedusa, destination for many migrants setting off from Tunisia, complained on Sunday that his town was on the verge of societal collapse.

Groups of migrants were flouting laws, harassing women and getting drunk, Mayor Salvatore Martello said in an open letter to Italian news agency ANSA  and in comments to Italian news outlets.

Read more: 'Migrant doctor' heals the wounded on Lampedusa

"Threats, harassments, thefts, Lampedusa is about to collapse," Martello wrote, calling for the closure of the "useless" migrant center on the island. "Police are powerless," he wrote.

"The bars are full of Tunisians who are drunk and harass women. I receive tens of messages from frightened tourists, hoteliers, traders and restaurateurs who suffer daily."

Residents outnumbered

After a decade out of power, Martello was re-elected recently as mayor of Italy's southernmost island, which over the past 20 years has become a primary entry point for migrants to Europe. At times its temporary migrant population has outnumbered the island's 6,000 permanent residents.

Read more: Lampedusa suffers under weight of Europe's refugee crisis

Lampedusa has long held the image of having open arms for migrants. Its residents were nominated for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in rescuing hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants, many from Eritrea, Syria and Libya, and treating them with dignity and compassion.

"The inhabitants have proved capable of living in peaceful co-existence with the new-comers, while showing a unique ability to express empathy and solidarity," Oslo Professor Elisabeth Eide wrote in her nomination letter.

Previous Mayor Giusi Nicolini in April 2017 was awarded the Unesco peace prize for "her humanity, and her constant efforts in managing the refugee crisis."

Detected illegal border crossings into the EU first quarter of 2016

But Martello, who served as mayor from 1992 to 2002 and was re-elected in June, presented a picture of an island struggling with lawlessness.

Although the reception center is heavily guarded by multiple security agencies, rowdy migrants are able to come and go as they please, he argues.

Mayor accused of restoring fear

His comments were rejected by his predecessor Nicolini, who told ANSA he was vastly overstating the problem and that there were very few thefts.

"This is an attempt to restore the climate of fear that existed on Lampedusa before my election," she was quoted as saying.

Nicolini conceded that the flow of Libyan refugees had been replaced by small numbers of Tunisian migrants who were evading controls.

Read more: Italy impounds German NGO migrant rescue ship, lawmakers boost support for Libyan coastguard

Priest denies problems

The island's parish priest said he was surprised by Martello's comments, in comments to La Stampa(Italian language).

He said the recent Tunisian arrivals were "very young and certainly noisy," but that the island remained calm and it was possible to live there. He said he had recently brought a delegation to the island and that the migrants remained almost invisible.

"I'm not at all aware of disturbances or crimes." He said it was probable that Martello was seeking to boost his political position.

It would be a tall order for Rome to dismantle the so-called hotspot center, as it was opened following an explicit request from the European Union. The hotspots serve as point of first call to identify, document and often deport Mediterranean arrivals.

Saving lives on the Med