On Lampedusa, the lucky few who made it across the sea live in misery

Overcrowding, lack of food and police violence plague the people who fled to Italy praying for a better life.

Migrants and refugees on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, Italy
Italian police coralling refugees and migrants on the island of Lampedusa, Italy [‪File: Lidia Ginestra Giuffrida‬/Al Jazeera]

Lampedusa, Italy – More than 2,000 people and 289 children have died in 2023 trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in search of safety and a future in Europe. Many of those who survive the journey land on the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Conditions in the island’s reception centre are said to be dire year-round as the arrivals continue, far outpacing the facility’s design and infrastructure.

In September, conditions were stretched seemingly beyond breaking as a significant uptick in arrivals was noted. Many had departed from Tunisia to cross the Mediterranean.

European policy towards migration so far has been to close borders and push refugees and asylum seekers back beyond the bloc’s frontiers, such as the longstanding agreement between Italy and Libya.

In July, a new pact on migration was announced between the EU and Tunisia’s President Kais Saied. Under its terms, Tunisia was promised 900 million euros ($944m) to support its faltering economy and invest in renewable energy and youth.

Earmarked within this was some 100 million euros ($105m) to bolster its border security along the lines of “shared priorities of combating irregular migration”.

Migrants gather in Italy
Refugees and migrants gather at the migration centre ahead of the von der Leyen and Meloni visit to Lampedusa, on September 17, 2023 [Yara Nardi/Reuters]

The misery of the situation in Lampedusa was all but acknowledged by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen – two of the agreement’s principal architects – who visited it in mid-September to announce the launch of a 10-point plan they hoped would ease the strain.

September arrivals

Between September 12 and 15, the days immediately prior to von der Leyen and Meloni’s visit, Lampedusa saw 11,000 arrivals, mostly of sub-Saharan Africans who had departed from Tunisia’s second city of Sfax.

According to refugees and migrants Al Jazeera spoke to, the Tunisian Coast Guard had let them pass with no difficulty, while local smugglers had also asked for less than in previous months to pay for their passage.

“I tried to reach Italy four times but, so far, there’s been a lot of Tunisian Coast Guard at sea, both they and Tunisian fishermen tried to stop the boats that had Black people in them, but this time it was easier to leave. There were only two Tunisian patrol boats, and they let us pass.

“This time I paid 1,500 euros ($1,580) to cross, even though the other times I paid more,” recounted Emmanuel, a 19-year-old from Cameroon.

Heaping pressure on Lampedusa, to what end?

Nevertheless, though the relative relaxation in border security appears new, the racial hierarchies that govern Tunisia’s policing of migration remain. Many Black arrivals on Lampedusa speak of being attacked by either the Tunisian coastguard or fisherfolk, who would pull up alongside their boats to steal their engines or try to sink them while letting Tunisian asylum seekers on similar boats pass undisturbed.

Migrants and refugees on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, Italy
Crowded refugee camp on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, Italy [‪File: Lidia Ginestra Giuffrida‬/Al Jazeera]

According to Mohammed, a Tunisian teenager who arrived in Lampedusa in early August: “I’ve seen Tunisian fishermen stealing the engines from the boats with sub-Saharan Africans on board, leaving them adrift. The coastguard will pick them up and bring them back too. For us Tunisians, it is easier to leave, but for Black people, it is really difficult.”

Tensions between Tunisians and the Black refugees and migrants who wait in Tunisia for a boat to Europe have been high since Saied made an inflammatory speech in February, claiming that the sub-Saharan arrivals were part of a wider plot to “replace the Tunisian population”.

However, while the racist violence that exploded on the heels of that speech calmed, in Sfax, one of the principal rallying points for people seeking new lives in Europe, they remained, exploding once more after the death of a local man during confrontations with Black asylum seekers in July.

“Our lives after the Tunisian president’s speech had become hell, they evicted us from our homes and tried to kill us … both the police and the people,” Emmanuel said, “I have a friend who buried his two-year-old son in the desert after they deported us from Tunisia to the Libyan border.

Migrants and refugees on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, Italy
Refugees and migrants sleeping rough on Lampedusa [‪File: Lidia Ginestra Giuffrida‬/Al Jazeera]

“I’ve thought of dying many times. I left Cameroon six years ago – went to Algeria, Morocco, and finally Tunisia. I haven’t seen my mother since I left.

“I miss her so much. I’m happy to have arrived here, but I’m afraid to stay in Italy because I understand your president doesn’t want us. I’m afraid of what she might do to us.”

Desperate conditions

By mid-September, conditions in the Lampedusa reception centre were stretched to breaking point. Designed and intended for 400, it was housing 7,000. Many spoke of being thirsty. Some hadn’t eaten for days.

Aliu, 20, was sitting on the ground outside the centre, waiting to be transferred elsewhere in Italy.

“I haven’t eaten for three days,” she said. “It’s so tough here. We sleep outside, there are no beds and there are fights at meals. Sometimes I think I would have been better off not coming. In Gambia, we’re poor, but if someone is hungry, we give them something to eat. It’s not like that here, they’re letting us starve.”

Poor conditions on the island were not reserved for Black refugees and migrants alone. A young Tunisian mother had given birth on the boat to Lampedusa, with the newborn dying as a result of the dire conditions they were forced to endure.

View of a child through a fence
A child looks out of the migration centre on Lampedusa on September 16, 2023 [Yara Nardi/Reuters]

According to the centre’s inhabitants, the typical response from the Italian police to any suggestion of protest by the refugees was swift and heavy-handed.

“I wanted food so I asked to leave the centre because we hadn’t eaten for four days. We were all hungry. We got agitated because they wouldn’t let us out and then the riot police arrived, with shields and batons. That’s when I was hit,” Mohamed, a 16-year-old from Gambia, who had arrived alone, told Al Jazeera.

“I want to leave here, I want to go somewhere else, I’m so sad. I’m sleeping outside, no bed or blankets, and it’s so cold at night,” he said, “I thought life would be easier here, but now I understand it’s not,” he said, before sitting back down, to continue his wait for a transport to another port.

Diplomatic feints

That Tunisian authorities seemed to be turning a blind eye to Black people leaving in mid-September was unusual and resulted in extra pressure on Italy and Europe at a time when the agreement between Tunisia and Europe was being debated in the European Parliament.

A woman cries as migrants stand outside the hotspot
A crying asylum seeker outside the migration centre on Lampedusa, September 16, 2023 [Yara Nardi/Reuters]

The Parliament was concerned about Tunisia’s human rights record and the moral responsibility of an agreement that returned fleeing people to a country where they were not likely to be safe.

So the funds Europe promised Tunisia had not arrived yet and von der Leyen’s visit was planned for September 17, a Sunday.

By the Friday following the visit, the EU had announced that 127 million euros ($133m) would be disbursed to Tunisia within days – 60 million euros would be for “budget support” to prop up Tunisia’s ailing economy, and 67 million for operational support on migration.

Throughout, Meloni has defended the pact with Tunisia, dismissing criticism of Tunisia’s human rights record, insisting that the North African country remains safe to return asylum seekers to, despite the public concerns of several rights groups.

However, for Aliu from Gambia, little of this mattered.

She lifted up an orange she was holding. “This is the first thing I’ve eaten since I arrived,” she said, “but we can share it.”

Source: Al Jazeera