Lampedusa – Europe’s Port

A boat of immigrants being escorted by the Coast Guard into the port of Lampedusa.  Freeze frame of video shot by AP cameraman Paolo Lucariello April 4, 2011
A boat of immigrants being escorted by the Coast Guard into the port of Lampedusa. Freeze frame of video shot by AP cameraman Paolo Lucariello April 4, 2011

Dear Blog Readers– Today I am flying to the tiny island of Lampedusa off the coast of Sicily, to cover Pope Francis’s first trip.

Lampedusa is a treeless, strip of an island,  9 kilometers (4 miles) long in the middle of the Mediterranean, closer to the African mainland than to Italy.  Every year thousands of immigrants attempt the 113 kilometers (70 miles) crossing in rickety old wooden boats and leaky rubber dinghies.  They pay exorbitant fees (from 1000 euros and up) to human traffickers to make their way towards what they all hope will be a better future in Europe.  In the past 20 years, over 20,000 immigrants have met their death at sea turning the Mediterranean into a giant graveyard.

Lots of others have made it, over 47,000 in 2011, and over 5,000 in 2012.  The island, with a local population of roughly 5,000 people, has struggled desperately to keep up with the pressure. There is a holding center on the island which has room for nearly 400 immigrants but it is often packed with hundreds more waiting for a flight to transfer them to the Italian mainland.

Often it is the fisherman from Lampedusa who find the immigrants boats when they are out fishing.

Over the years, my AP colleagues and I have traveled to Lampedusa many times to cover the thousands of immigrants as they arrive shivering with cold, exhausted and scared on the small pier in the center of Lampedusa.  In recent years there has been an upsurge in immigrants from Tunisia, Libya and Egypt as the Arab spring convulses those countries, but I also have interviewed immigrants arriving from Sudan, Gambia, Liberia and Eritrea.   I will never forget interviewing a 30-year-old man named Newton Someday from Liberia just after he stepped off the boat looking cold and miserable, “I am so happy,” he said, “this is the best day of my life.”   Many of the immigrants told me they wanted to pass through Italy to seek their fortunes in France, Germany and Holland.  Others simply said they had to get away from wars and killing in their own countries. Others, weak and dehydrated were too weak to talk and were carried off in stretchers, wrapped up in shiny metal space blankets.

At first it was almost always young men, but now there are often women, sometimes pregnant, and children of all ages making the hazardous journey, all seeking a better future.

The Italian Coast Guard constantly monitors the waters both on the sea and from the air and rescues all the boats they find, taking the immigrants on board, or if their boat is still seaworthy, escorting it into the port.  But the Italian Coast Guard does not always make it on time.

A few weeks ago Pope Francis was shocked and moved by photos of saw of 98 immigrants clinging to tuna fishing nets once they had lost their boat (11 died in the incident) before the rest were saved.  The news prompted the Pope to make the trip.

In typical Pope Francis style, he has done away with all pomp.  He will fly down Monday morning — no fancy welcoming ceremony, no red carpet, no bands– just a quick handshake with the mayor and then he will take a boat out into the sea to drop of wreathe on the water in honor of those who have died.

He will then be taken to the  pier where the immigrants disembark and will meet with a group of African immigrants.  From there we’ve been told that he will get in an old Fiat convertible that has been fixed up for the occasion (No pope-mobile this time) that will take him to the nearby soccer field where he will hold Mass.

Organizers say that in addition to meeting the immigrants, the Pope will meet with the sick, the old, the fishermen and the children who live on the island.

Interestingly the soccer field is right near what has become known as the “Boat Cemetery”, where all the old carcasses of boats that have made the crossing are piled up.  I have wandered through that cemetery, looking into those old rotting wooden wrecks, there are old holey shoes, pieces of clothing, biscuit wrappers with writing in Arabic on them, bought before the journey and eaten on the way.

A local artist has taken the wood from one of the wrecks and made a chalice that the Pope will use during the mass.   The Vatican has said the Pope will dress in violet, in Catholic liturgy a color used to symbolize pain, suffering and penitence.

To be continued from Lampedusa…

23 thoughts on “Lampedusa – Europe’s Port”

  1. Christina Houpis

    Bravo Papa Francesco! I have first learned about him and his amazing approaches from your blog, which by the way I retro-read obsessively :). Since, I read all I can about what he is up to, and every day I admire him more. I always have to shake my head and ask, “is this really happening?” I hope the world is watching. Things are moving! Thank you for always writing such interesting important and funny thing about this city… I always look forward to your next post!

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Thank you Christina — I am so glad you like my blog –and you actually retro-read, I am honored!!
      Glad to hear you are a Papa Francesco fan too!!

  2. I am moved beyond telling by this post. The images – of Newton Someday, of the boat cemetery, of frightened, exhausted travelers throwing themselves on the mercy of sea and foreigners in their desperate search for a place to live – will stay with me. And the prospect of Pope Francis meeting both islanders and immigrants, and saying mass with a chalice built of wrecked boat, is so hopeful. We are mired in news of Egypt, Turkey, Syria, and their uprisings. I imagine many are fleeing from there to Lampedusa, even today. Thanks God for little Lampedusa, and the hope she gives to desperate people.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Thank you for your comment Nancy. Today was definitely an uplifting day for news coverage. I also feel bombarded by tragic news around the globe and it does become overwhelming. I will write more on the Pope’s visit here shortly but I will add that probably the unrest in Egypt will spark an upsurge in people arriving. In 2011 when the Arab uprisings began in Tunisia and Egypt and the war in Libya– I think 47,000 people arrived.

      1. Trisha Thomas

        It was really crazy in 2011 because there were more immigrants on the island than the local population. There was no place for them to go so they were camping out all over the island.

  3. Gwen Thomas

    Your comments on walking through the boat graveyard remind me of seeing a similar such boat washed ashore on the coast of Florida, likely from Cuba. It was rickety likely to begin with, quite banged up from the voyage, and empty of passengers who had swam ashore and scattered. I understand that often as they approach the US shoreline, passengers jump and swim to reduce the chance of getting caught arriving all in one boat. Still clinging to the sides of the boat were plastic bags folks had tied on with food and water, old shoes and clothes like you have described – the few remanents of peoples lives. One stands there looking at the horror of it, wondering if the people made it alive and about the horrors that drive someone to such a dangerous passage.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      That is so interesting Gwen. The difference here is that the Coast Guard escorts their boats into shore, or loads the immigrants onto Coast Guard ships if their boat is sinking and bring them directly to the pier where they are transferred to a holding center. Very humane.

  4. I am just so impressed with the Pope and how he seems to have left the pomp and circumstance behind. Do you hear much from the Italian public at large about it? I wonder what the church Old Guard thinks. I imagine they view it as quite a threat.

    I can not imagine the hardships the immigrants endure, both in their own country and then as they attempt to make their way to a better life. Your stories of the people in their boats reminds me of the Cubans who attempt to cross the sea to Florida. It makes me sad to think they they are willing to make such a perilous journey, with no certainty that they will survive it, not to mention probably no true grasp of what they will find once they come ashore.

    You have seen first hand the lives these people live, the circumstances which drive them to leave their homes. I would love to hear how things go for them once they arrive in Italy. You have discussed to issue before, but I would enjoy readnig about it in greater depth. Do they receive some sort of state aid? If so, are there roadblocks to obtaining it or is it easy for them? Can they legally find work, or is much of their employment an “under the table” extralegal or downright illegal sort of an affair? I can only imagine the degree of exploitation if their work is not state sanctioned and legal. What kind of path to citizenship are they afforded, if any?

    Does the Italian government have any sort of “wet feet – dry feet” policy like the U.S., where those intercepted at sea are sent back home, but those who set foot on U.S. soil are allowed to stay? And finally, has Cecile Kyenge met with the Pope or appeared with him in public?

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Gosh Adri– you have so many interesting comments and great questions. I am going to write another post now on Lampedusa and I hope to answer some of them, if not I will get back to you. On just one, I will answer right here. The Pope is making a lot of waves and apparently a lot of enemies inside the Vatican. The old guard obviously doesn’t like his down-to-earth, close to the people and the poor attitudes. More soon….

      1. Hey, don’t do that! I mean, don’t get back to Adri directly; they’re great questions so answer them here for all of us if you can, even if it takes months before you get to them. Particularly those of us who dream of migrating to Italy (legally or otherwise) in the next 15 years or so are very interested! I’ve never been to Lampedusa, such interesting stories there.

        1. Trisha Thomas

          Wow Carina — you are actually reading the comments too. I am so happy. Alright, let me respond to a couple of Adri’s questions off the top of my head. I have already mentioned in a comment above that a lot of the immigrants head north to Norway (in Amal’s case), but lots to France and Germany where they have relatives and better opportunities. It is extremely difficult for people with Italian citizenship to find legal work right now, so the chance of someone who has arrived on Lampedusa getting something legal would be next to impossible. Many of them who stay in Italy work in jobs I mentioned in another comment reply that they end up picking tomatoes and oranges and living in horrible conditions in Southern Italy, women end up as prostitutes, others selling trinkets on the streets of Rome or other Italian cities. What I have noticed about a lot of immigrants in Italy is such a positive, energetic attitude towards their work and pride in whatever they are doing. I have been aggravated sometimes in the past hearing some Italians say that a job in a pizzeria or a coffee bar is below them. My American grandmother taught me that one should always do your job with pride, no matter what it is. She would say, “no job is below you as long as you are earning.” If you dream of migrating to Italy, I suggest the easiest way to get Italian citizenship is marrying an Italian– but if you do that then you have to be prepared for all the baggage that comes with an Italian man (you need to read some of my other posts, and in between the lines of some of them to figure out what all that baggage is)

  5. Trisha,

    What a powerful post. One is just more and more impressed by P. Francis and his caring and humility. Oh for more such leaders in our world. He truly lives the ideals of his patron saint. How remarkable. In a world of pomp, ego and materialism he does away with those things. And he has the strength and courage to undertake frform in the Vatican. (A big thanks for your informative blog on that subject.

    One can’t help comparing border patrol and immigration policy in Italy with that of the US. Our border guards are military, often vigilantes who turn people back with violence. And look at our current attitudes toward immigration policcy reform, and we can’t even pass a very flawed bill.

    I salute Italy for it’s humanity in deal with immigrants (although I know it gets worse as they go north!) Italy demonstrates the humanity and helping the poor and sick in the best tradition of Francis.


    1. Trisha Thomas

      Thank you Dad for this thoughtful comment. You are so right. I got a comment above from a blog-friend in Australia and it sounds like the treatment of immigrants there is similar to that of immigrants in the US. I must admit I had goose-bumps this morning watching Pope Francis, he’s a good man.

  6. roll on the day when governments along with their bloody borders to nation states are a thing of the past – I can dream!

  7. I hope this makes the major news bulletins worldwide. The Italian government’s coast guard pick up these people and help them? Pope Francis laying a wreath?

    How this makes me cringe with shame at my own countries’ appalling lack of empathy and respect for people in identical situation trying to make it to our own shores. Offshore mandatory detention behind razor wire – for women and children too – is just one method used by the Australian government. It is not illegal to seek asylum in this country and yet these desperate people are seen as terrorist threats, queue jumpers and used as political pawns in an increasingly galling game in the lead up to the Australian elections in September.

    As always, Trisha, thank you. I look forward to the next post.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Kathy — you are writing from Australia, correct? I think the United States is very similar in its policy. Not much care or understanding for immigrants even though we are a country of immigrants.

      1. Yes, Trisha – Australia. Where the Opposition Parties’ call to arms is to ‘Turn Back the Boats’ – i.e. tow them back to Indonesian waters – and this policy actually has popular support amongst many Australians.
        I look forward to some coverage on Australian news of Pope Francis’ gestures – won’t hold my breath.

        1. Trisha Thomas

          It is so interesting to see how different countries respond to these things. I don’t know how many people the US let die as they were trying to get to the US from Cuba. The Italian Coast Guard actually goes and gets the rickety ships as soon as they get out of Libyan waters. Apparently the traffickers put old motors that they know will break down on unseaworthy boats, they take the boatloads of people outside Libyan waters, they make a call for help from their cell phone, and then they have one of their group come pick them up in another boat and they head back to Libya. It is so incredible. Today before leaving Lampedusa I covered another 340 people arriving.

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