Lampedusa: Europe’s Border Isle

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By Jackie Olson

An Italian island with a population just over 6,000, Lampedusa was once considered a secret vacation getaway for Europeans, receiving almost 50,000 tourists a year. Now, due to its proximity to the African continent, just 70 km from the Tunisian coast, it has become a border-state between the EU and the volatile African nations, primarily Libya and Tunisia for thousands of refugees.

In 1985, the first round of the Schengen Treaty was passed which eliminated border checks at most EU-member countries along with the harmonization of visa guidelines. In addition, the legislation ordered whichever Schengen-country first received a migrant would be forced to take responsibility for the individual. This clause within the treaty has proven most problematic to the European Union and for countries especially Greece and Italy with their natural closeness to the migrant countries. Questions concerning the relative fairness to their disproportionate influx of migrants in comparison to other mainland EU countries has been in contention in recent years, especially after the massive increase of migrants to Europe in 2015 running concurrently with the Syrian Civil War.

Lampedusa became a stopping point for refugees into mainland Europe after the passing of the Martelli Law in 1990 which prohibited the free travel of North Africans into Europe and sanctioned airlines and ferry companies from permitting undocumented North Africans to use their transportation services in Europe. The passing of this act, in essence, gave birth to illegal, often unsafe, ways into Europe for migrants and created an opportunity for a border economy: local border entrepreneurs currently charge 1,000 Euros for direct transfer from Tunisia to Lampedusa and North African port authorities have reaped massive profits from mass migration.

In 1998, Lampedusa opened the first detention center and overtime expanded the local services to include longer stays for migrants. The services also changed from non-profit workers to profit which has altered the nature of Lampedusa into an economy that is largely now police and military personnel.

In 2002, Italian naval patrols were forced to direct migrants’ boats to shore resulting in the disproportionate number of migrants to Lampedusa between 2003-2008, in 2008 alone over 30,000 migrants stopped in Lampedusa. Even though North African readmission policies were in place since 1998 with an agreement with Tunisian to send migrants back to North Africa, it took ten years before the policy drastically shaped migration patterns. In 2004, the EU lifted embargos on Libya, at the time the most popular embarking country and stressed for support with naval patrols and deportations. Yet only in 2008 after Italy paid reparations for its colonial history did Qadaffi actively help in the migration crisis, reducing overall migrant travel in 2009-2010.  

Although, after the Arab Spring in 2011, Italy was left to fight the influx of people alone and saw a drastic increase in migration due to the Tunisian Revolution and the Libyan Civil War. The Italian government declared the increase as a North African Emergency which lasted until 2013.  Within that period, 1.5 billion euros were allocated to reception asylum centers and most importantly in 2011, a German court overturned the Dublin Regulation of the Schengen Treaty and permitted migrants to not be deported back to Italy from other countries within the EU, the first country where they entered the European Union. This ruling has had wide repercussions in the crisis, especially after 2013 when Italy declared the Emergency status over and closed many centers leaving once Italian-settled refugees to flood northern European states such as Germany for support.

Yet in 2013, the Lampedusa crisis did not lessen in severity. 14,753 migrants passed through Lampedusa that year and the island was marked by two tragedies. First, on October 3, approximately 500 Eritreans, Somalis and Ghanaians died meters off the shores of Lampedusa, the worst disaster in the Mediterranean since the Second World War. The tragedy brought attention to the efforts on the island and some proclaimed the locals rescue efforts to be worth the recognition of a Nobel Peace Prize. A few weeks later, Italy passed the ‘Mare Nostrum’ act to increase military naval patrols to stop any future tragedies from occurring near Italian waters. Yet in December, Lampedusa’s efforts were thrown aside with the exposure of reports that the local centers sprayed refugees for scabies, sparking massive protests from EU legislators who threatened to block financial support to Italy for their inhumane migration policies.

In 2014, migrant crossings substantially increased to over 165,000 people and was the deadliest year with 3,500 dying in transit. This was primarily due to the defunding of the ‘Mare Nostrum’, a systematic program that was too expensive to fund: over 10 million dollars per month. Italy, instead, looked to the E.U. for a naval search program which instigated the foundation of Operation Triton. Triton was considered useless with its low-budget and short range of 30 miles off Italian coasts.

In the ongoing Syrian Civil War since 2015, Syrians have disproportionately made up the largest nationality of Mediterranean crossings, from January 2016 to April 2017, 83,000 have used the routes to escape the bloody conflict. While in 2015, Italy saw only roughly 150,000 migrants in comparison to the 800,000 Greece had, overtime Italy has increased migrant inflows to roughly its 2011-2013 numbers. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) predicts that Italy will receive 190,000 refugees in comparison to Greece’s 44,000 in 2017.

Yet with the ongoing Islamic State terrorist attacks on European cities, Italy has been less willing to take massive amounts of migrants with the fear that terrorists from Libya will use the Mediterranean routes and ultimately attack the Vatican. Although, Italy may have to actively devote more resources to asylum-seekers, especially after the numerous European elections in 2017 that may place many far-right agendas in power which have condemned open asylum policies. Therefore, while Italy has reached reception capacity, it is currently looking at plans on how to better structure services to refugees with the view that the situation will still be severe but will garner far less internationalist-European  and more nationalist-based sentiment against relief for the mass-migration tragedy. What support Italy will receive or if they will stand as the lone-wolf against the volatile crisis will certainly be seen but will only be another layer added to never-ending cycle of mixed support and anguish from Europeans and the rest of the indecisive world.

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