There is an emergency taking place now in Lampedusa: a humanitarian emergency. The island recorded more than 8,000 arrivals by sea between Monday and Wednesday, and Thursday saw some 40 more. By late afternoon, 300 people remained stranded on the Favaloro pier, where the security forces had been charging and pushing them earlier in the day. Water bottles had to be thrown to them, while some of the migrants jumped into the sea trying to cool down after hours spent under the scorching sun. After 30 years of the phenomenon of migration, the landing point is still not equipped to provide dignified reception to those who arrive here, even when numbers are low, let alone with this record wave.
Another point of crisis is the Contrada Imbriacola hotspot, crowded as never before: 7,000 admissions on Thursday, at a facility only fit to hold 400. Here, tensions sprung up mainly during the distribution of meals, while the general situation remained one of complete chaos: both regarding sanitary conditions, inevitably compromised due to overcrowding, and because there is no space for anything at all. Italian Red Cross workers had to remain outside the center for hours.
There are also groups of migrants outside the center, signifying a breakdown of the tacit pact made between the central institutions and Lampedusians, based on the notion of hiding those who have just landed inside the hotspot, with the aim of protecting tourism. This system held up in the spring and summer, but it has become completely dysfunctional in the face of the numbers in recent days.
The numbers are similar to the record year of 2016 (which eventually counted 181,000 landings, compared to 124,000 this year so far). In that case, however, as IOM spokesman Flavio Di Giacomo recalls, only a small part of the migrants went through Lampedusa: “most were rescued at sea and were brought to the large and more suitable Sicilian ports.” Back then, in the open sea around the largest of the Pelagie Islands and down to the international waters in front of Libya, both institutional rescue vessels and NGO vessels were in operation, coordinated by the Coast Guard. Today, there is no search and rescue mission, Italian or European, and humanitarian ships are kept out of the picture for many days through being assigned to far-flung ports: as a result, all the rafts and barges leaving Tunisia and Libya inevitably converge on the island.
The exception to this situation was the deployment on the high seas of the Coast Guard ship Diciotti, which rescued 528 people and disembarked them in Reggio Calabria on Thursday. What stood out in this case was that, despite a very high number of shipwrecked people, the authorities did not apply the principle they’ve adopted against NGOs: to give them ports of call in central and northern Italy, with the official excuse of relieving the pressure on the Sicilian and Calabrian reception systems.
Meanwhile, the institutional machinery to transfer migrants from Lampedusa is in a race against time. On Thursday, according to the Interior Ministry, 1,650 people were brought to Sicily. On Friday, it would be the turn of another 3,750, with 2,270 expected for Sunday. An “extraordinary operation,” while the possibility of further mass arrivals looms. For the next few days, the weather forecast remains good, while on Thursday the pace of the landings slowed down regardless.
The island’s parish priest, Don Rizzo, called the situation “tragic, dramatic, apocalyptic” – both for those arriving and those already here. The Archbishop of Agrigento, Monsignor Alessandro Damiano, appealed to regional and national authorities “to commit to guaranteeing management and assistance for these flows of migrants in transit that would respect the dignity of the person, of those who, out of desperation and need, are seeking refuge on our shores. This is unacceptable.”
The sheer unacceptability was highlighted by the latest awful tragedy that occurred just a few feet from the pier: on the night between Tuesday and Wednesday, a barge capsized right as it was going to land, and a five-month-old baby drowned. The mayor of Lampedusa called for national mourning, along with a state of emergency.
However, on Thursday, Infrastructure Minister Matteo Salvini claimed the record landings were an “act of war,” secretly “directed by criminal organizations.” His Foreign Affairs colleague Antonio Tajani pushed back, saying he didn’t know “whether they are being directed not,” calling once again for help from the EU and reiterating that departures must be stopped. He did not specify how.
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