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On Lampedusa, there's sympathy for migrants — as long as they don't stay

Migrants in Lampedusa's Porto Vecchio wait to be transferred by ferry to Porto Empedocle, from where they will be sent to reception centers across the country, Sept. 22. Most of them arrived in the previous week, a period when Lampedusa declared a state of emergency due to an influx of about 7,000 migrants in a few days.
Valerio Muscella for NPR
Migrants in Lampedusa's Porto Vecchio wait to be transferred by ferry to Porto Empedocle, from where they will be sent to reception centers across the country, Sept. 22. Most of them arrived in the previous week, a period when Lampedusa declared a state of emergency due to an influx of about 7,000 migrants in a few days.

LAMPEDUSA, Italy — The small harbor in Lampedusa is crowded with a fleet of dilapidated wooden and metal smuggler's boats, some half-submerged. Discarded life jackets, filthy clothes and plastic water bottles float in the sea.

It's the debris of thousands of migrants who recently arrived on the shores of this small Italian island. Lampedusa is the closest piece of European territory to North Africa, so many migrants who make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean land there first. It is the gateway to Europe.

A wooden boat used by migrants to arrive at Lampedusa is seen near the beach of Guitgia, Lampedusa, Sept. 20.
/ Valerio Muscella for NPR
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Valerio Muscella for NPR
A wooden boat used by migrants to arrive at Lampedusa is seen near the beach of Guitgia, Lampedusa, Sept. 20.
Boats used by migrants to arrive at Lampedusa are transported to the port, Sept. 20.
/ Valerio Muscella for NPR
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Valerio Muscella for NPR
Boats used by migrants to arrive at Lampedusa are transported to the port, Sept. 20.

On the dock, aid workers and medical staff — pale from lack of sleep — help men and families clamber out of two more boats that just arrived from Tunisia.

Some 12,000 people — more than twice the population of this island — arrived here in a single week this month, according to deputy mayor Attilio Lucia. With the reception center overwhelmed, the migrants, bedraggled and hungry, walked into Lampedusa town in search of help. They crowded streets lined with restaurants and trinket shops for tourists.

Migrants enter a ferry boarding under the control of police and Italian Red Cross workers, who distribute water and basic items in Lampedusa, Sept. 22.
/ Valerio Muscella for NPR
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Valerio Muscella for NPR
Migrants enter a ferry boarding under the control of police and Italian Red Cross workers, who distribute water and basic items in Lampedusa, Sept. 22.
Two Syrian migrants wait to be transferred to Sicily by ferry in Lampedusa, Sept.22.
/ Valerio Muscella for NPR
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Valerio Muscella for NPR
Two Syrian migrants wait to be transferred to Sicily by ferry in Lampedusa, Sept.22.

Islanders showed compassion. Many opened their doors to give the migrants a place to wash. Restaurants donated food. And the owner of one ice cream shop handed out gelato.

"Everyone helped. Everyone. What else are we meant to do?" says Mario Verde, a resident sitting with friends on a stone bench in the main square. "These are people, like us."

Lampedusa's fishermen tell stories of saving migrants' lives at sea or recovering the bodies of the drowned. Migrants from across Africa and the Middle East pile into small boats, hoping for a better future in Europe. But many of the boats sink or capsize in the Mediterranean, leading to over 2,000 deaths so far this year, according to the International Organization for Migration. The real figure is likely higher because there likely are boats that sink that are not recorded.

Moussa Koulibaly, 30, from Guinea, works as a cultural mediator in Lampedusa, Sept. 21. He arrived by boat in Italy in 2017.
/ Valerio Muscella for NPR
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Valerio Muscella for NPR
Moussa Koulibaly, 30, from Guinea, works as a cultural mediator in Lampedusa, Sept. 21. He arrived by boat in Italy in 2017.

In Lampedusa, although there's sympathy for the migrants, the topic is also very sensitive. In the local hospital, there are separate gynecologists to treat migrants and local women.

The decision is intended to show all patients are equal, "so that no pregnant woman comes across as superior to the other," explains Moussa Koulibaly.

Koulibaly works for the local authority as an interpreter between the Italian emergency services and migrants, many of whom speak French and tribal languages. He arrived in Italy from Guinea in 2017 and has since coauthored a book about how he managed to integrate into society through taekwando.

"Sport helps unify people," he says in his now-perfect Italian. "But still, it was extremely difficult — psychologically, physically, culturally — to start a new life."

Now he tries to help those he meets through his work.

Moussa Koulibaly offers help at the port of Lampedusa, Sept. 20.
/ Valerio Muscella for NPR
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Valerio Muscella for NPR
Moussa Koulibaly offers help at the port of Lampedusa, Sept. 20.
Migrants in Lampedusa's Porto Vecchio wait to be transferred by ferry to Porto Empedocle, from where they will be sent to reception centers across the country, Sept. 20.
/ Valerio Muscella for NPR
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Valerio Muscella for NPR
Migrants in Lampedusa's Porto Vecchio wait to be transferred by ferry to Porto Empedocle, from where they will be sent to reception centers across the country, Sept. 20.

"When the migrants arrive at the port, they sometimes tut and hiss and kiss their teeth to catch someone's attention. This is normal in lots of African countries," he says.

Laughing warmly, he says: "I tell them: 'Hey, don't ever do that, brother; it's rude here!'"

Even as Lampedusans help the migrants, the situation has infuriated many who want the Italian government to do more to stop the arrivals.

Attilio Lucia, the deputy mayor of Lampedusa, in his office on Sept. 20. Lucia is with Italy's right-wing Lega party.
/ Valerio Muscella for NPR
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Valerio Muscella for NPR
Attilio Lucia, the deputy mayor of Lampedusa, in his office on Sept. 20. Lucia is with Italy's right-wing Lega party.
Lampedusans attend a public assembly in Freedom Square to protest the management of migration flows by local and national authorities on Sept. 20.
/ Valerio Muscella for NPR
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Valerio Muscella for NPR
Lampedusans attend a public assembly in Freedom Square to protest the management of migration flows by local and national authorities on Sept. 20.

At a café in town, a group of local men and woman are in a heated debate.

<em>"</em>We, an island of 11 kilometers by three, cannot carry the weight of the world," says Giacomo Sferlazzo, an activist and puppet master in Lampedusa.
/ Valerio Muscella for NPR
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Valerio Muscella for NPR
"We, an island of 11 kilometers by three, cannot carry the weight of the world," says Giacomo Sferlazzo, an activist and puppet master in Lampedusa.

"We have to unite the people to take action," says a bearded, black-haired man wearing a shell necklace. He's Giacomo Sferlazzo, a musician and puppet master originally from the island, who made headlines days earlier as he and others blocked the convoy of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. She was visiting the island with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyden, in response to local panic after some 7,000 migrants landed in a single day.

Meloni campaigned on a promise to reduce migration to Italy — a commitment she hasn't been able to keep. With the road blocked by protesters, she stepped out of the car to speak with Sferlazzo.

Migrants in Lampedusa's Porto Vecchio wait to be transferred to Porto Empedocle, Sept. 21.
/ Valerio Muscella for NPR
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Valerio Muscella for NPR
Migrants in Lampedusa's Porto Vecchio wait to be transferred to Porto Empedocle, Sept. 21.
Migrants in Lampedusa's Porto Vecchio wait to be transferred by ferry to Porto Empedocle and then sent to reception centers, Sept. 22.
/ Valerio Muscella for NPR
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Valerio Muscella for NPR
Migrants in Lampedusa's Porto Vecchio wait to be transferred by ferry to Porto Empedocle and then sent to reception centers, Sept. 22.

"As usual, I face up to things," she told him, and vowed to do everything possible to let islanders enjoy their annual festival of the Madonna of Lampedusa without interruption from more migrant arrivals and visits by politicians seeking photo ops.

Later, Meloni announced a decision to extend the time some migrants can be kept in detention centers before being repatriated. But the policy only applies to those who have been through the lengthy asylum process and are slated for deportation — a tiny minority of those who land in Italy.

A crowd watches Sferlazzo's puppet show.
/ Valerio Muscella for NPR
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Valerio Muscella for NPR
A crowd watches Sferlazzo's puppet show.
The puppet show organized by Giacomo Sferlazzo revisits the 16th century story of <em>Orlando furioso</em> by Ludovico Ariosto, a love story set against the backdrop of an invasion of Europe by armies from the Middle East, and a battle for Christian survival.
/ Valerio Muscella for NPR
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Valerio Muscella for NPR
The puppet show organized by Giacomo Sferlazzo revisits the 16th century story of Orlando furioso by Ludovico Ariosto, a love story set against the backdrop of an invasion of Europe by armies from the Middle East, and a battle for Christian survival.

There are no easy solutions.

Sferlazzo describes himself as a Marxist-Leninist, but on the issue of migration, he's formed what might seem an unlikely union with Lucia, the town's deputy mayor, who is with the right-wing Lega party. Their plan is to stop Lampedusa from becoming what he calls "a military zone."

Migrants wait at Lampedusa's Porto Vecchio to be transferred by ferry to Porto Empedocle, Sept. 22.
/ Valerio Muscella for NPR
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Valerio Muscella for NPR
Migrants wait at Lampedusa's Porto Vecchio to be transferred by ferry to Porto Empedocle, Sept. 22.

Sferlazzo lists the many military, naval and police outfits that have a presence on the island because of the migrant arrivals. He says the island lives off tourism and fishing and he doesn't want that to change.

Migrants who land on Lampedusa now are swiftly taken by Italian authorities to larger reception centers in Sicily or Italy's mainland. But Sferlazzo and Lucia fear that the government wants to expands Lampedusa's capacity for housing migrants — possibly leading to the island becoming a reception center for migrants, who could spend years waiting for requests for asylum to be processed.

"We, an island of 11 kilometers by three, cannot carry the weight of the world," says Sferlazzo.

There's little evidence that this is the government's plan. But islanders are so sensitive to the possibility that when authorities sent a shipment of tents intended for migrants this month, Sferlazzo and Lucia immediately mobilized. "We decided to go down to the street and call on the population of Lampedusa," says Lucia. Alongside hundreds of islanders, they marched to the port and managed to stop the ship from docking.

"We will not let Lampedusa become Alcatraz," Lucia says.

In the main square, crowds gather to watch a puppet show Sferlazzo has brought to the island. It recounts the 16th century tale of Orlando furioso by Ludovico Ariosto, a love story set to the backdrop of an invasion of Europe by armies from the Middle East, and a battle for Christian survival.

Introducing the show, Sferlazzo says he's against war and wants "dialogue with the people of the Mediterranean."

But his decision to put on this show feels to some in the audience too much like coincidence, and the underlying message is clear: Just like the response to the migrant crisis by many of Europe's governments, for all the sympathy they offer, Lampedusans won't let their island become the migrants' new home.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.
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