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EU refugee problem pawned off on Lampedusa

Karl Hoffmann, Lampedusa / sbFebruary 22, 2015

Since the end of Mare Nostrum and the flare-up of the war in Libya, more than 1,000 people have landed on Lampedusa. The island's residents fear the worst is yet to come. Karl Hoffmann reports from there.

Italien Insel Lampedusa Flüchtlinge
Image: DW/K. Hoffmann

A few days ago, Lampedusa was awoken from its winter slumber. Just off the tiny island, right between Europe and Africa, more than two dozen refugee boats arrived. Military boats and helicopters are now being deployed to rescue hundreds of people every day and bring them to land, dead and alive. At the beginning of this new wave of arrivals, the coast guard had to bring 29 dead bodies into Lampedusa's small port.

It has been very traumatic for the locals, says social worker Marta Bernardini. "When the dead bodies arrived here last week, an atmosphere of silence and mourning covered the whole island - almost as if the residents can no longer find words to describe all of the suffering."

The bodies were transported by air to Sicily. Soon thereafter, many more people arrived. Since the beginning of the week alone, 2,700 people have had to be rescued from rubber dinghies. Around half of them were brought to Lampedusa because there weren't enough adequate rescue ships.

Italien Insel Lampedusa Flüchtlingslager Gedenken an Tote
Flowers placed in remembrance of the deceased refugeesImage: DW/K. Hoffmann

The end of the rescue operation Mare Nostrum, which expired in October and was not extended for financial reasons, means that there are now only a few marine units responsible for securing the coastal waters. Triton has replaced the old mission.

Giusi Nicolini, Lampedusa's governor, thinks Triton is absolutely pointless.

"They don't understand who they are supposed to be protecting us from. These dramatic scenes in the Mediterranean that we have been seeing for the past 20 years are of a pure humanitarian nature. People have to be saved. Triton is equivalent to throwing money out of the window," he says.

Triton is pushing the refugees to Lampedusa

Mare Nostrum had been a blessing for the little Italian island. The marine operation rescued more than 100,000 people from high sea who were then brought to Sicily or the Italian mainland. Lampedusa benefitted from this and, for the first time in many years of an ongoing refugee tragedy, it had a peaceful summer and a good tourist season.

But successor operation Triton, which was launched by the EU border agency Frontex, reversed the situation. Triton only keeps watch over coastal waters. Now the refugee dinghies are forced to enter these areas near Lampedusa before they can be rescued.

Locals in Lampedusa are enraged. They are upset over the pointless deaths, over the horrendous conditions of refugee camps as well as about the negative headlines that are once again threatening to ruin the island's reputation.

People are worried about an invasion of refugees fleeing Islamist terror, which is getting ever closer to home. In addition, there is also worry about the financial security of the island's 5,000 inhabitants. On top of that, the picture being painted about Lampedusa is simply a wrong one, says Paola la Rosa, who runs a guesthouse.

Italien Insel Lampedusa
Life is far from easy-going these days in LampedusaImage: DW/K. Hoffmann

La Rosa says the islanders are neither to blame for all the deaths nor for the conditions at the refugee camps - for which ministries in faraway Rome are responsible. "It is happening again, Lampedusa is getting a bad rap. This could have detrimental consequences for our tourism."

$2,000 for a chance in Europe

There aren't any tourists in Lampedusa at the moment. The only people who can be seen strolling along the streets of town are African youth. During the day, they are allowed to leave their overcrowded camp - something that is meant to keep the peace among the camp's many, many inhabitants. Currently, 800 refugees are living in a camp that was originally built to house 380 people. Many of them are minors, and they are on their own.

Abdomasi and Omar came to Lampedusa from Somalia via Libya. Omar, 18, says he was locked up in Libya for two months. He says the situation was grave, that there were "fights and shootings everywhere," adding, "in Libya, the people live in fear and terror."

His goal is to join his brother in Germany. They fled from Somalia, he explains, because of a war that is claiming dozens of lives by the day. The young men paid $2,000 (1,750 euros) each to people smugglers to bring them to Europe. Omar doesn't know where fate will lead him after Lampedusa - or when his situation might change. But somehow he will fight his way north, he says.

Italien Insel Lampedusa Flüchtlinge Omar und Freund
Omar, right, and his friend fled the violence in LibyaImage: DW/K. Hoffmann

The residents of the island are waiting and hoping that no war breaks out right at their doorstep. There are frightening new rumors that have found their way across the Mediterranean.

The Italian secret service is said to have worked out that more than 250,000 refugees currently living in camps in Libya are willing to risk the dangerous trip to Europe. Rumor has it that Islamist terrorists are forcing people to flee in order to cause chaos in Europe. With it comes the worry that terrorists are among the refugees flooding into the continent.