Capsized boat sharpens Europe's concern over migrant influx from Libya, Tunisia
Italy continued searching for survivors of a boat that capsized after leaving Libya for Lampedusa, the Italian island where thousands of migrants have landed since the start of Arab unrest.
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“It’s very cold at night – we have to wear all our clothes,” says Jifani Becem, a farmer from Mahdia, Tunisia, who shares a ramshackle shelter lined with cardboard with 20 of his compatriots. “We have nowhere to go to the toilet. It’s very dirty. I just want to get to France. I don’t care what kind of work I do.”Skip to next paragraph
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The island, which is just 10 miles long, has a single immigrant reception center, capable of accommodating around 1,000 people. A former US military communications base, which in 1986 was the target of a missile launched by Col. Muammar Qaddafi, has been turned into temporary accommodation for women and children. Thousands of other migrants – most of them young men – have been largely left to fend for themselves.
Last week, there were 6,000 migrants on the island, aimlessly roaming its only town and outnumbering the resident population of 5,500. They set up their makeshift tents wherever they could find space – on beaches, between upturned fishing boats, cactus bushes and palm trees, and on a windswept hill of rock and scrub overlooking Lampedusa’s harbor.
Pushed to the brink
“We call it the hill of shame,” says Antonio Geudellari, a local businessman, as he surveyed the scene from the dockside. “How can we go on like this? Kids are afraid to leave the house, the women are scared. It’s a disaster for Lampedusa.”
Locals have shown remarkable tolerance, however, treating the arrivals with kindness and sympathy. “We feel sorry for these young men, sleeping on the ground night after night and having nowhere to wash or go to the toilet,” says Pasquale Policardi, the owner of a bakery.
But even the most sympathetic say that Lampedusa has been pushed to breaking point and that it cannot cope with the invasion of refugees. Locals who make their living from fishing and tourism have seen their island turned into a military garrison, flooded with hundreds of soldiers, paramilitary police and Red Cross workers.
The wall of a kiosk on the harbor front has been daubed with large blue letters: “Enough! The island is full up.”
Many of the new arrivals have been moved to hastily built camps and former military barracks on Sicily or mainland Italy. They contain Tunisians and Libyans but also a dozen other nationalities, including Malians, Nigerians and Sudanese, Gambians and Bangladeshis.
Hundreds of young men have been able to escape the reception centers by simply vaulting over wire fences, often beneath the gaze of guards.
Human rights groups have condemned the Italian authorities’ response to what has turned into a humanitarian crisis as totally inadequate.
The international medical organization Médecins Sans Frontières said it was “intolerable” that migrants were given 1.5 liters of water a day, instead of the humanitarian standard of 20 liters, and that there were just 16 chemical toilets for the 3,000 people camped out around the port area.
“It’s difficult to believe that one is in Italy, a G8 country. Living conditions on the island are worse than those seen in the refugee camps in other parts of the world where MSF works,” said Kostas Moschochoritis, the director of MSF in Italy.