I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The Italian island of Lampedusa is 70 miles (112 km) from the coast of Africa at Libya. For thousands of desperate migrants it’s their first landfall in Europe, that’s if they are lucky enough to survive the incredible dangers of their journeys.
The Journey to Libya
In most recent years, more than 150,000 sub-Saharan Africans have been applying for asylum in Europe annually. These are the ones that survive the hazardous journey from their homes. They are fleeing conflict, corruption, human rights abuses, and extreme poverty.
The trek involves shady people traffickers who sometimes abuse the migrants or hold them hostage until a ransom is paid by their families.
First, they must cross the Sahara Desert, an obstacle that takes many lives. They pile into the cargo beds of pick-ups and are driven past the skeletons and bodies of those who didn’t make it.
Most head for Libya because from there the sea crossing to Europe is one of the shortest. But, in Libya, they might easily fall into the clutches of gangs who prey on them and take what little money they might have. If they have no money, they may be auctioned off in a slave market.
The Sea Crossing
Having negotiated all these perils, the would-be migrant now needs a boat. Some of them climb into inflatable rafts that are wholly unsuitable for use in the open waters of the Mediterranean. Others hitch a ride in old, wooden fishing boats that are no longer suitable for their original purpose because of rotting boards or holes in their hulls.
Whatever the craft, they are always grossly overloaded and tragedies are frequent.
Many who set out on the crossing to Lampedusa are intercepted (although rescued is a better word) by Italian Coast Guard vessels or ships operated by charities; the passengers had little chance of making landfall in their decrepit boats.
In 2019, informigrants.net reported that “The Mediterranean crossing continues to be the deadliest migrant route worldwide: 19,000 migrants have been reported dead or missing since October 3, 2013.”
One horrible incident in October 2013 happened within sight of Lampedusa. Here’s The Guardian: “The vessel was carrying 466 people from Somalia and Eritrea when it caught fire, capsized and sank near the island, drowning 311 people . . . The islanders pooled resources to feed and clothe survivors and bury bodies washed up on the shore.”
Arrival in Lampedusa
Yet, thousands of African migrants a month make it to Lampedusa, where they are put into a camp designed to hold 300. By the middle of 2021, the camp held 1,500 with hundreds more outside trying to get in.
Reporting for the BBC, Mark Lowen writes that “Lampedusa and its population of around 6,000 have shown immense resilience and, for the most part, hospitality over years of migratory pressure.” But, the numbers have become overwhelming.
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Anti-immigrant politicians are now popular, and they want the migrant boats stopped.
The people who arrive on Lampedusa are documented and shipped to the Italian mainland. Many have deportation orders placed on them but nobody seems to know how many of those orders are acted upon. The Italian bureaucracy has a well-deserved reputation for sloppiness so many migrants simply slip away from detention centres and into the underground economy.
There’s no shortage of unscrupulous employers ready to hire desperate people for less than the minimum wage.
An Example of Italy’s Bureaucracy
In April 2021, an Italian hospital discovered it had paid an employee $650,000 in salary over 15 years but he hadn’t once shown up for work.
The Migrant Boat Graveyard
Some of the broken down old tubs that do make it to Lampedusa have been hauled ashore and put in a sort of cemetery.
Journalist Nick Craven visited the place in 2016 and wrote “As I walk through the boat graveyard, I find one vessel on which the deeply charred timbers around the engine area hint at the horrors its occupants experienced. Another is full of holes along the gunwales which may have been caused in a collision with another boat. The wood around the holes crumbles to dust between my fingers.”
Dozens of these rotting hulks baked in the sun and stood as reminders of the privations endured by so many people seeking a better life. But, it seems even this mute testament was irritating to some people.
In June 2020, someone, or some people, torched the boat graveyard; hundreds of vessels went up in flames. A few days earlier, a memorial named “Gateway to Europe” was vandalized. The monument, designed by artist Mimmo Paladino, was erected in honour of those who died trying to reach Europe.
Both incidents are being investigated by the Italian government as politically motivated hate crimes.
- In 2015, the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey. The little boy’s death came about as he and his family were trying to escape the civil war in Syria. Their flimsy craft capsized shortly after leaving Turkey. Part of the response was for the European Union to send €6 billion ($7.3 billion) in aid to Turkey to help deal with refugees. The result was a sharp decline in the number of people trying to make a dangerous sea crossing from Turkey to Greece. This also meant a fall in lives lost due to boat accidents.
- Francesco Tuccio is a carpenter living on Lampedusa. He helped rescue African migrants when their boat caught fire and capsized near the island. Later, he built 155 crosses out of wood salvaged from the wreckage for each of the survivors of the disaster. He also made several larger crosses.
- “The Harrowing, Step-by-Step Story of a Migrant’s Journey to Europe.” Yomi Kazeem, Quartz Africa, October 25, 2018.
- “Migration: Taking Rickety Boats to Europe.” Efam Awo Dovi, Africa Renewal, 2017.
- “Lampedusa: Italy’s Gateway to Europe Struggles with Migrant Influx.” Mark Lowen, BBC News, May 13, 2021.
- “Graveyard of Horror Hulks: Gaping Holes in Migrant Boats That Somehow Survived the Crossing From Libya to Italy.” Nick Craven, Mail on Sunday, May 28, 2016.
- “Sicily Launches Inquiry into Fire in ‘Migrant Boats Graveyard’.” Lorenzo Tondo, The Guardian, June 6, 2020.
- “Lampedusa Cross Made from Capsized Refugee Boat to Tour England.” Harriet Sherwood, The Guardian, March 14, 2021.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor