Lampedusa: Wasted lives and the limits of European ‘hospitality’

lampedusaI don’t suppose that tourists, lured to Lampedusa’s Rabbit Beach, off the southern coast of Italy, voted the world’s best beach by the travel site TripAdvisor as having ‘snow-white beaches, unspoiled nature and the crystal-clear sea filled with life’, spare a thought to the island being the primary European entry point for migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia.  At least not until last week’s disaster in which some 300 migrants drowned in a desperate attempt to reach ‘Europe’. Lampedusa, I suggest, epitomises the paradox of European asylum policies at their most acute.

After Lybia and Italy reached a secret agreement in 2004 that obliged Libya to accept African immigrants deported from Italy, there was a mass return of many people from Lampedusa to Libya. This didn’t last and by 2006, African immigrants were paying Lybian people smugglers to help get them to Lampedusa by boat. On arrival, most were transferred by the Italian government to reception centres in mainland Italy. Many were then released because their deportation orders were not enforced.

lampedusa-migrantsIndeed, as reported by Der Spiegel, migrants have been arriving at Lampedusa – the southernmost European port – for many years. Even during last week’s disastrous night, another boat landed on the island, this one carrying 463 mostly Syrian refugees. The human traffickers often destroy their ships’ engines before reaching the coast; they are then unable to manoeuvre the boats, officially considered in distress and must be towed into port.

Lampedusa is a small island – some 20.2 square kilometres, 4,500 people – and the overcrowded migrant reception centre makes it difficult for the locals, many of whom, however, are in support of the migrants. By May 2011, more than 35,000 immigrants had arrived on the island during the Tunisian and Libyan uprisings, more recently augmented by migrants fleeing the Syrian crisis. Despite the support of Pope Francis, the situation – and more precisely the most recent disaster – has caused a deep divide among European states, with the French calling the migrants ‘economic’ rather than refugees and demanding their return.

Paradoxically, however, last week’s drowning may help to sharpen European minds and make EU states realise that, like Greece – the easternmost refugee destination – Lampedusa is a European, not only an Italian problem. The burden, according to the President of the European Parliament, must be shared. When the EU amended the controversial 2003 Dublin Regulation, it confirmed the rule that any refugee who reaches Europe can only apply for asylum in the EU country he or she enters first. This makes it near impossible for refugees to reach, for instance, Germany which is completely surrounded by other EU states, but also Ireland, which has almost no direct flights from refugee sending countries. The Dublin Regulation must be dropped: sharing the burden may not only alleviate the pressure on the Lampedusans and enable their tourists to go on enjoying its wonderful beaches. It will – most crudely – save precious lives.

The Lampedusa disaster demonstrates, once again, how pointless it is to speak of ‘human rights’ which ultimately are only ‘citizen rights’. It also illustrates how some lives are ‘wasted’ and their owners destined by us, Europeans, for the rubbish heap.