I was a little bit hesitant about going to Lampedusa this summer. The Sicilian island is hardly out of the news as a result of the desperate attempts by migrants to reach Europe and escape their war torn countries. Who can forget the terrible image of a migrant’s body lying on the beach while tourists sunned themselves nearby? How could I justify enjoying myself on holiday when so many were arriving after enduring terrible conditions at sea and probably even worse on land?
Yet, Lampedusa is an island that relies heavily on the tourist and fishing industries. It is a popular holiday destination that thousands of Italians flock to every summer. I was told that I would not even notice the arrival of migrants by boat as this all happened away from the main tourist area. It wasn’t that I was worried that it would spoil my holiday but more a case of was it right to go there? I’m still not sure if we should have, but we did and it is the plight of the migrants that has remained with me.
On our first day we hired a boat and as we were leaving the port we passed the coastguard towing a boat of migrants alongside them. I didn’t take any pictures out of respect. There were about a dozen migrants standing in the boat and the coastguards were beginning to remove their white forensic paper overalls and masks. I have always wondered how strange that must look to them after a long journey at sea. I have thought about them often, about where they are now, what they have been through, what kind of future they might have.
That evening, we saw their boat being towed away and learnt that the captain of a tourist boat had spotted them close to where they had been picked up, in front of the port. He couldn’t believe they had gotten so far with no-one spotting them and he had called the coastguard. I am not sure what I would have done in that situation, I am not sure I would have called the coastguard unless they looked as though they were in need of help. I wanted them to get where they were trying to get to. Maybe they would have voluntarily gone into the port but as many are sent straight back I doubt that. They are sent back if they have papers showing that they are from Tunisia, I think there is an agreement with their government. Otherwise they are ‘held’ in an immigration centre on the island before being processed. That is if they are ‘lucky’ as we heard stories of fishermen finding migrant women at sea and keeping them at home to serve their ‘needs’. I so hope this isn’t true but I would be naive to believe it isn’t. I can’t cope with how depraved humans can be.
There was, and probably still is, a lot of resentment on the island towards the migrants but how can this be? How can people abandon each other, not be empathetic and try to help their fellow man? All of us need to admit that if we found ourselves in the same awful situation that they do that we would try and do everything we could to escape it, to survive and to build a new life somewhere else.
In October 2013, 366 migrants died off the coast of Lampedusa. We came across a memorial garden so that this tragedy would never be forgotten. It wasn’t easy to spot and we stopped there by chance. For every one of the 366 who died they have planted a Mediterranean plant in their honour. It seemed a nice idea. Unfortunately, the plants were not in a very good state and I am unsure as to how many will survive the heat and battering wind that they get there. The weather on Lampedusa can be unforgiving just as the conditions at sea that led to their deaths were. For the plants that were put there in their memory to die as well is just too insulting.
Another, more poignant reminder of the migrants’ sea crossings, is to be found next to the new port. Here you will find what can only be described as a boat graveyard which you can’t fail to spot or be moved by. Hundreds of boats are grounded there, many in pieces or with giant holes, as a permanent reminder of those who have risked, and in some cases lost, their lives to reach the gateway of Europe.
Thousands of migrants arrived when we were staying on Lampedusa, many at night. Italian TV crews were there filming their news reports. On the last day we visited a small cove where the water looked clean and inviting. Instead there was litter everywhere and more disturbingly, and the reason why we promptly left, washed up on the rocks there were clothes and a suitcase.
You can’t escape the migrant story at Lampedusa and nor should we ever try to. Society needs to open its eyes to this tragic situation and face the problems that cause people to become refugees head on. We need to open our arms and welcome them and give them the comfort and hope that they so desperately seek after such a perilous journey. We need to be selfless. We need to put ourselves in their shoes then we might begin to understand and show more compassion.