Saturday

3rd Dec 2022

Tunisian migrants spark protests on Italian island

  • Riot police on Sunday blocked access to the Lampedusa docks (Photo: Valentina Pop)

With hundreds of Tunisian migrants arriving every day by boat, the inhabitants of the overcrowded island of Lampedusa over the weekend have staged daily protests in the port, calling on the Italian government to step up the pace of transfers to the mainland.

"We are not against the migrants, not at all. It's the government in Rome, [Prime Minister] Berlusconi, who is to blame for this situation, it's absolutely unacceptable," said one resident, gesticulating in anger.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

Some migrants joined the few dozen inhabitants protesting on Sunday in the port of Lampedusa, shouting "We don't want to be sent back" and "death to the dictator [Ben Ali]."

It was the third consecutive day of demonstrations. But this time it was against gendarmes and riot police who were blocking access to the docks where hundreds of stranded Tunisians were being given first aid and aluminium foil to wrap around their shivering bodies.

"We can't take them to the reception centre," says one aid worker, "there is no more room for them there." With its capacity already at its limit with 850 migrants, the reception centre on the island can no longer cope with the fresh arrivals. The total number of immigrants on the island stands at about 4,000.

On Friday, the locals protested on the dock itself, preventing the coast guard from coming on land with more rescued migrants.

A piece of EU territory just 113 km off the Tunisian coast, Lampedusa is usually home to some 5,000 inhabitants, mostly engaged in the tourism and fishery industries.

According to captain Vittorio Alessandro, spokesman for the coast guard, two more boats arrived by Sunday around with over 300 migrants between them. "It is possible that there are more boats on their way," he added. A military vessel, promised by the Italian navy to help out with the transfers to the mainland, "had not yet been sighted," he said.

The surge may not yet be as large as the one in February, immediately after the ousting of Tunisian dictator Ben Ali, but the inhabitants are becoming more tense as it gets closer to the start of the tourist season on which the economy of the island depends.

The mayor of Lampedusa, Bernardino De Rubeis, joined the protests on Sunday, claiming "victory" for not allowing tents and other temporary arrangements to be set up on the island - something that he says could keep tourists away.

"Italy should be ashamed today," he said, for allowing the migrants to be "treated like animals, urinating in the streets, sleeping under the open sky, in the rain." "Where is the humanity we are talking about?" he shouted in the loud speakers, blaming Berlusconi and other politicians for dragging their feet.

For the mainland, he argued, a couple of thousand of migrants "is nothing", unlike for the island, where there is no source of fresh water and the sanitary conditions are worsening by the day.

'Unwelcoming'

Migrants in the port had mixed feelings about what was going to happen next.

"I didn't think Europe would be so unwelcoming. I will not stay in Italy, once on the mainland, I will leave in 24 hours," says a young Tunisian who arrived on Friday after a 16-hour trip on a boat full with 125 other people.

Using Ali instead of his real name, the Tunisian said he paid €1,000 for the trip and left because "there is no liberty, no democracy – it's still Ben Ali's old guard ruling the country."

A car mechanic, Ali is eyeing "Germany, France or Belgium", where he hopes to find an employer to "give him a contract and solve his paperwork."

"If you have a clear idea of what you want, you can get the papers in order," he said.

EU mission in the back seat

A spokeswoman for the Warsaw-based EU border agency, Frontex, meanwhile told this website that the Italian authorities have not yet asked for help in transferring the migrants from Lampedusa to Sicily, for instance by extending the existing "Hermes" operation set up in February to assist them with the Tunisian situation.

Out of the 20 debriefing experts sent by member states, none of them is based in Lampedusa.

Romain Prevot, a French border official now based in Trapani, northern Sicily, told EUobserver that "initially we were supposed to be in Lampedusa," but then "for security reasons," the Italian government decided to deploy them to Sicily and the mainland.

In Trapani, the reception centre, capable of hosting 300 people, is not overcrowded like the one in Lampedusa. On Saturday, there were 230 migrants, almost all Tunisians transferred by plane or ferry from Lampedusa where they first arrived. "We have 20-30 newcomers every day , but then 20 others just leave the place and take their chance as illegals," Prevot said.

"Most probably they go to France. They have relatives there. They speak the language. At the moment, the only way to repatriate them is on a voluntary basis, because there are no re-admission agreements in force with Tunisia," he explained.

As for refugees from the Libyan war, "We are expecting them, but none has arrived yet," Prevot said.

His remarks were confirmed by Libyan authorities on Sunday, as the local state television quoted one security official saying: "Libya has decided not to be responsible over the illegal immigration to Europe."

The European Commission last year had offered Libya up to €50 million to improve border control and protect refugees.

Watch the testimony of Ali (pseudonym), a Tunisian mechanic on his search for a better life in Europe
EU expands patrol mission around Lampedusa

Frontex, the EU's border agency, has extended until the end of August its patrolling mission around the Italian island of Lampedusa and widened its area of operations, as the influx of Tunisian migrants continues to outpace the flights and naval transport to the Italian mainland.

Tunisian migrant: EU treatment is 'shameful'

Tunisian migrants stuck in harsh conditions in Lampedusa feel let down by the EU compared to the effort made by ordinary Tunisians to help refugees fleeing violence in Libya.

Swedish EU presidency: 'Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine'

Ukraine and a looming economic recession is set to dominate the upcoming Swedish EU presidency, which takes over at the start of next year. Sweden's ambassador to the EU, Lars Danielsson, laid out some of its priorities.

French official accused of conflict over EU fish lobby job

A senior French official is being accused of conflicts of interest for spearheading a leading role in Europeche, a fishing-industry lobby group based in Brussels. The hire comes as the EU Commission threatens a lawsuit against France over fishing.

Portugal was poised to scrap 'Golden Visas' - why didn't it?

Over the last 10 years, Portugal has given 1,470 golden visas to people originating from countries whose tax-transparency practices the EU finds problematic. But unlike common practice in other EU states with similar programmes, Portugal has not implemented "due diligence".

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP27: Food systems transformation for climate action
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region and the African Union urge the COP27 to talk about gender equality
  3. International Sustainable Finance CentreJoin CEE Sustainable Finance Summit, 15 – 19 May 2023, high-level event for finance & business
  4. Friedrich Naumann Foundation European DialogueGender x Geopolitics: Shaping an Inclusive Foreign Security Policy for Europe
  5. Obama FoundationThe Obama Foundation Opens Applications for its Leaders Program in Europe
  6. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBA lot more needs to be done to better protect construction workers from asbestos

Latest News

  1. EU must break Orbán's veto on a tax rate for multinationals
  2. Belarus dictator's family loves EU luxuries, flight data shows
  3. How Berlin and Paris sold-out the EU corporate due diligence law
  4. Turkey's EU-funded detention centres ripe with abuse: NGO
  5. In green subsidy race, EU should not imitate US
  6. EU Commission proposes suspending billions to Hungary
  7. EU: Russian assets to be returned in case of peace treaty
  8. Frontex leadership candidates grilled by MEPs

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Committee of the RegionsRe-Watch EURegions Week 2022
  2. UNESDA - Soft Drinks EuropeCall for EU action – SMEs in the beverage industry call for fairer access to recycled material
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic prime ministers: “We will deepen co-operation on defence”
  4. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBConstruction workers can check wages and working conditions in 36 countries
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Canadian ministers join forces to combat harmful content online
  6. European Centre for Press and Media FreedomEuropean Anti-SLAPP Conference 2022

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us