Island of Lost Souls

Refugees arriving from Libya (photo by Eva Barton)

In May 2011 I went to Lampedusa, the small Italian island near the African coast which had been and continues to be a focal point for perilous clandestine migration organised by traffickers. Usually migrants are moved off the island to centres in mainland Italy, but after the Arab Spring revolutions earlier that year, removals had stopped and Lampedusa had become the scene of a crisis. This is the report I made about why the crisis happened.

By day they roamed the town on the bare rock that was their prison. By night they huddled in makeshift shelters against the cold air breezing in off the Mediterranean.

“An indelible, unforgettable shame” is how Giuseppina Nicolini, her voice harsh with emotion, describes the six week period in February and March when the number of Tunisian migrants on Lampedusa grew to exceed the resident population. “I could show you photos I took” she says, “but to be honest it’s the ones I couldn’t bring myself to take that I’ll remember forever.” Nicolini manages the Lampedusa office of Legambiente, an environmental body active across Italy. The scenes she recalls to me are no secret. The international media was there in force to record them. But Nicolini is convinced that even months on from its end, the truth about the invasion of Lampedusa has still not been told.

To the mainstream media the immigration crisis was an unfortunate by-product of events in North Africa which caught the Italians, like most governments, unawares. As a result – so the accepted narrative goes – Italy had no space in any of its immigration detention facilities on the mainland, meaning the destitute Tunisians had to be kept on Lampedusa in such unprecedentedly large numbers that they could not be contained in the holding facility and instead spilled out among the local population. After seven weeks, with a state of emergency officially declared, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi arrived to announce that “within forty eight to sixty hours Lampedusa will be inhabited by no one but Lampedusans”. Following a further five day delay while the details of a repatriation deal with Tunisia’s interim government were hammered out, he delivered. Now most of the boats that continue to arrive on Lampedusa carry people coming from Libya – carefully defined as refugees – rather than Tunisians, who are defined without exception as ‘economic migrants’. As soon as the boats dock at the quayside the refugees are loaded into buses and taken to a holding centre where they are housed until their transfer to one of Italy’s mainland facilities, typically within forty eight hours. Today a visitor to Lampedusa would find a tranquil island scarcely disturbed by the continued arrivals from Africa. The point is an important one. In the last two decades Lampedusa’s economy has come to depend heavily on tourism. And while in reality the crisis may be over, locals are angry that the message is not getting through to potential visitors. They feel they are being made to pay twice: once with the trauma of the emergency itself, and now again with a summer of economic failure. In the minds of many the blame for this lies with the media who perpetuate a false image of an island unsuitable for tourism.

Not so in Nicolini’s eyes. For her and others the debate about Lampedusa’s current woe is skewed by a basic misconception. As she sees it, the ‘invasion’ can only be seriously discussed when it is accepted not as an inevitable effect of the Arab Spring, but as the result of a deliberate policy by the Italian government.

“At a certain point migrants kept arriving but they didn’t leave any more. If instead of taking them away you let them build up and build up it’s obvious that you’ll get to seven thousand.”

Giuseppina Nicolini (photo by Eva Barton)

Nicolini rubbishes government claims that the scale of influx meant that immigration centres on the mainland reached full capacity.

“From spring to autumn 2008 migrants arrived at a comparable rate. Did anyone talk about a biblical emergency then? The government were quite explicit that they wanted to keep the Tunisians here until repatriation. When it was found out that the regions had space for 50,000 and there were 12,000 Tunisians – at that point 5,000 of them here – a Government senator was asked what they were waiting for to take those 5,000 off the island. And he replied ‘But the 50,000 places are for refugees. They’re Tunisians, they’re not refugees. They have to be repatriated. And so we’ll keep them on Lampedusa because from there they can’t escape.’”

Nicolini points out that 2011’s spike in arrivals is a result of the breakdown of deals Italy made in 2009 with the dictatorships in Libya and Tunisia. Berlusconi’s government agreed to pay Tunisia’s Ben Ali to immediately repatriate Tunisians arriving in Italy, while a joint policing deal with Gaddafi involved migrant boats being turned back to Libya on the high seas before they could make an asylum claim, a policy known as respingimenti, which violated Italy’s obligations under the Geneva Convention on Refugees. Rather than creating an unprecedented immigration emergency, the Arab Spring merely meant a sudden and exaggerated return to the conditions prior to these agreements. The key difference was that instead of migrants being kept in the detention centre and frequently transferred to the Italian mainland, transfers ceased and the separation from locals ensured by the Welcome Centre model was abandoned. For Nicolini this situation, and the hostility and indignity it caused, could not have happened without the acquiescence of Lampedusa’s mayor, Bernardino De Rubeis.

I interview the bearlike De Rubeis in his office in the town hall, asking him first if he is satisfied with the government’s response to the crisis. His response is surprising:

“I have to tell you, with great peace of mind, that the people of Lampedusa gave themselves to this humanitarian crisis, collaborating with central government, in order that this emergency could bring forth out of Lampedusa, but above all out of Italy, a strong message that all the member states of the European Union should absolutely be taking on board.

“If Lampedusa had not allowed itself to be invaded for about two months the problem would definitely not have got out. If you have 6,300 immigrants in a territory like that of Lampedusa, with a resident population of 5,800, it is very different from sending those 6,300 immigrants to Italy where nobody notices because Italy is big, and so, almost deliberately, a tragic moment was created so that Europe would wake up to the problem. I am convinced of this and I take responsibility for it, because the government, as it is doing today, and as it did after fifty eight days of the crisis, could have easily and quickly resolved the problem by transferring the immigrants to the various centres in Italy. Many are full, but they could have created more.”

Bernardino De Rubeis (photo by Eva Barton)

In other words De Rubeis agrees with Nicolini that the emergency was artificially created, and that he collaborated in it: somewhat surprising for the mayor of an island which depends on tourism, given that Lampedusa’s image in the eyes of potential visitors was always likely to be ruined by the crisis. But De Rubeis argues that it was a necessary piece of propaganda to force the European Union to help Italy cope with immigration. And he is sure that Lampedusans will be recognised and rewarded for their sacrifice. “I’ll go to Rome to try to meet Berlusconi because what do the people here need? Or rather what does the tourism sector need? They need serious answers… a ten year run of credit, which can be given by the Sicilian region… and on the national level a block on taxes for at least six to seven months.”

Whether one agrees with this policy or not, at least it would appear that De Rubeis is being honest. However Nicolini disputes not only the ethics and wisdom of his decision. She, along with a number of other Lampedusans, believes that De Rubeis no longer has a will of his own – that he is nothing more than a puppet whose strings are held by dark forces at the opposite end of the long boot of Italy’s mainland.


The current Italian government is a coalition between Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party and the Lega Nord, a northern separatist movement who used to campaign on a mainly anti-southern platform but are now trying to spread their mix of xenophobia and federalism across the country. At the height of the 2011 crisis Lega leader, Umberto Bossi, came out with the soundbite immigrati fora dai ball, a northern dialect phrase which roughly translates as ‘Immigrants get the f*** out’. Berlusconi’s government depends on Lega support to pass legislation. In return the Lega has been able to exert a strong influence and obtain ministerial positions, including Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, and Minister for Simplification Roberto Calderoli, whose view on immigrants is that: “the door is always open for them to go back to the desert and talk to camels, to the jungle to talk to monkeys.” For Nicolini the desire to turn Lampedusa into an open prison came from the Lega. Its aim was not just to attract European help in dealing with immigration, but also to stir xenophobia across Italy.

“The Lega needed to show their voters in the north this monster of Lampedusa. It was a well-designed plan and from their point of view it worked perfectly. On an island it’s easy. It’s a sealed environment. You can truly do whatever you want.”

And yet two years earlier the Lega met fierce resistance when they tried to do the same thing. In 2009 the island was threatened by a similar crisis to the one that unfolded in 2011. Agreements with the dictators Ben Ali and Gaddafi had yet to be sealed. Lega pressure on Berlusconi to halt the flow of immigrants onto mainland Italy reached a head. On January 23 2009 Interior Minister Maroni announced that the ‘Welcome Centre’ on Lampedusa would henceforth operate alongside a ‘Centre for Identification and Expulsion’ (CIE). The Lega’s intentions were clear: they wanted to redefine Lampedusa not as a stepping stone but as a place where migrants could be kept until being sent back. With the Libya deal yet to be ratified by the Italian parliament and negotiations over a new agreement with Tunisia at a critical stage, there was an obvious benefit to creating a situation on Lampedusa that would sting previously reluctant hands into action. The pace of transfers off the island slowed and numbers in the Centre swelled far beyond its eight hundred capacity. On January 24 more than one thousand broke out of the gates and made their way peacefully to the town hall where a crowd of locals protesting against the planned CIE greeted them with cheers. It was a moment of solidarity; locals and migrants united in their refusal to allow Lampedusa to be turned into a prison island, and Bernardino De Rubeis was with them: “Lampedusa is not for sale. We find ourselves confronted with an all-powerful state that wants to impose its own choices and transform this island into a prison under the open sky.” He became the target for attacks from Lega Nord politicians including Minister Calderoli who accused him of deliberately seeking the spotlight and “throwing petrol on the fire”. When, in February 2009 Tunisians rioted and the Centre was almost destroyed in a fire that sent toxic fumes across to the nearby town, De Rubeis still reserved his ire for the government and the Lega’s influence within it: “They have turned the Centre into a concentration camp. The immigrants are at the end of their tether.”

But Maroni and Calderoli were not without allies on Lampedusa. One of the stranger features of the island’s recent history is that the Lega, with its northern separatist agenda, has successfully managed to implant itself there, on Italy’s southernmost point. Two of its candidates won council seats in the last local elections in 2007. One of them, Angela Maraventano, became De Rubeis’ deputy in a ‘centre-right’ coalition. De Rubeis himself was affiliated to the Movement for Autonomy – a southern-based party which campaigns for greater federalism but without the Lega’s intrinsic racism. The following year, still holding the post of deputy mayor, Maraventano was put forward in a northern seat for elections to the Senate, the second chamber of the Italian Parliament. Her successful election capped a speedy rise onto the national political stage. In return, the Lega expected her to take the battle to Lampedusa. To a backdrop of public abuse she spoke in defence of the government at the same January 2009 protest where De Rubeis delivered his message of defiance. The schism between mayor and deputy deepened in March when the government hurriedly converted a former NATO radar post into a Centre for Identification and Expulsion. Claiming Maraventano had gone behind his back, De Rubeis sacked her. Two months later the CIE was dismantled after the mayor led arguments that it had been constructed illegally. At this point there could be no doubt that if the Lega – and by extension the government – wanted to use Lampedusa as Italy’s immigration Alcatraz, they would find in Bernardino De Rubeis a genuine block of resistance.

That ceased abruptly on July 21 2009, when Italian finance police arrested him and took him by helicopter to prison on Sicily to face charges of bribery and corruption. From the beginning De Rubeis has denied these charges. Initially he claimed his arrest was a political plot by the government to punish him for his opposition. He was kept in jail for a month before being released pending trial. 2009 turned into 2010 and still the trial had not begun. In February 2010 he sent a letter to Interior Minister Maroni – a letter which subsequently became public – congratulating Maroni for the success of the respingimenti policy and offering one of the most humble political apologies that can surely ever have been tendered to a former enemy:

from a stubborn man, but a man able to understand when the time is right to take one or more steps back, recognising the merit and courage of someone who, with a strong, decisive action, has pulled off a masterplan.”

Simultaneously he posted an official ordinance reinstating Maraventano as his deputy with special responsibility for immigration:

“ …in the hope that she will forgive an old friend guilty of not defending and supporting a woman who was able to foresee the grand political design which has saved our island.”

The sentiments in these letters are supported by the facts: since his prison release at the end of August 2009, De Rubeis’ intransigence on the question of immigration has been replaced by unswaying adherence to the government line.

“Someone easily blackmailable,” is Giuseppina Nicolini’s carefully worded assessment of the mayor. Not that she believes the charges against De Rubeis are trumped up: the Legambiente was one of several interest groups who recently presented a two hundred page dossier to the regional prosecutor detailing his alleged abuses of office. But there is more than a hint of sympathy in her voice when she says “in a way he is both victim and executioner in this affair: executioner of his subjects; victim of his superiors.”

When I ask De Rubeis about his trial, now finally being heard in sessions separated by long intervals in a courthouse on Sicily, he no longer holds the government responsible. On that score too he has changed his mind. The enemies now are closer to home: the bureaucratic classes who, for years, he says, have had their own way on Lampedusa:

“The problems start when someone wants to make changes – when there are monopolies, when it’s the white collars who decide things, and then a mayor comes in – a mayor of the people, the son of a fisherman.”

The ‘blue collar’ workers I speak to do identify with De Rubeis. “We grew up together. He’s not a bad guy. But he’s controlled by others,” fisherman Pasquale tells me. Angelo La Noce, a carpenter, agrees: “The problem is not so much Dino as the people around him.”

While these locals do not analyse as closely as Nicolini, they share her sense that their elected mayor has become a puppet figure.

But perhaps the most revealing piece of evidence comes from De Rubeis himself:

“Very often the people choose a man to govern them, and then this man who should be able to govern peacefully finds himself caught up in situations where he is forced into compromises which mean that he cannot do his duty and honour the faith the people placed in him.”

Is this an admission that his radical U-turn from opposition to support for government policy on Lampedusa is somehow connected to the events surrounding his arrest and trial? Or is it simply a general statement that it is impossible for a local leader to represent the interests of his people when the will of certain influential figures is against him? Either way it seems to summarise the deeper truth of Lampedusa’s woes. Behind a dramatic tableau of immigration crisis lies the faded scenery of local democracy eroded by the cold exercise of power.

La Porta d’Europa – an artwork symbolising the spirit of welcome

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