Whilst the situation in Libya has been holding the world's attention, the fall out from the fighting and the uprising in Tunisia earlier on in the year has only, in the form of refugees arriving in Europe, has only intermittently made it into the press. Landfall for most of these refugees, just as it has been for decades, is the tiny island of Lampedusa 130 km off the Tunisian coast and 300 km from the Libyan capital Tripoli. In the past couple of years, since Berlusconi struck a deal with his then close friend Gaddafi to prevent the passage of migrants across the Mediterranean to Europe, the so-called 'push back policy', the flow had dropped to almost zero (the Tunisian authorities had also had a fairly strict policy of preventing the flow of refugees from its territory). Now it has turned into a deluge and Lampedusa is suffering its own humanitarian crisis.
In the wake of the Tunisian uprising in January, 5,600 Tunisian refugees arrived on the Island over the course of a few days in February, an island with a population of only 4,500. And there are currently around 5,000 Tunisian and Libyan refugees on the Island again today, with hundreds arriving each day. Here is a quick run down of some of the events in the past 2 weeks based on news reports and verbal accounts from an activist on the Island:
14 March - 22 landings on the Island with 1623 people arriving in a 24 hour period. Plus another boat is known to have capsized in Tunisian waters - 5 rescued with approximately 35 refugees unaccounted for, presumed drown. Neo-fascists Marine Le Pen, Front National presidential candidate, and Mario Borghezio, an Italian Northern League MEP also turned up to garner a bit of publicity and were greeted by a demonstration of 30 locals, who made it plain to them that they were not welcome.
15 March - 2,500 refugees currently on Lampedusa but no new arrivals due to bad weather.
16 March - Stefania Craxi, the Under-secretary for Foreign Affairs, visited to see the situation at first hand, warning that the rest of Europe would have to help out Italy. Interestingly, she was a prominent apologist for Ben Ali when he fled Tunisia, claiming that Italy should have granted him asylum. She even claimed that he was not a dictator, even though it was her father, then Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, helped Ben Ali seize power in 1987. No doubt she was seeking to return Ben Ali’s favour when he sheltered Craxi Snr. after he fled Italy to avoid criminal charges in 1984?
Italy’s Interior Minister Roberto Maroni quoted as saying that 11,200, mostly Tunisian immigrants, had arrived in Lampedusa since the start of this year.
17 March - Lampedusa residents block the landing of 4 boats with around 200 refugees on board in the harbour. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees the refugee facility on the Island designed for 850 is currently housing 2,600. “There are a number of women and many minors amongst the refugees. They sleep everywhere: two in every beds, under the beds, outside, in any space available, so that there is no space even to walk. They do not have blankets. There is no water to shower. They are given a bottle of water to wash themselves. There is not much food. They have to queue up for hours and sometimes the food finishes before they arrive at the end of the queue and when they eat it they immediately want to sleep.”
18 March - Lampedusa's residents again prevent a boat with 116 people on board from landing during daylight hours. Over night 3 boats with 378 people arrived.
20 March - 12 boats with a total of 1,350 refugees arrive, with a further 117 arriving at Catania in Sicily.
"Sunday we woke up around 7 am because someone was shouting from a megaphone on a car telling people to go and occupy the port to stop the arrival of red cross tents, probably for at least 10,000 people. The woman at the megaphone is one of the locals that want to save the [tourist] economy in Lampedusa and want the Tunisian [to be] transferred elsewhere in Italy. We went there to check what was happening. The people of Lampedusa always try to explain to the Tunisians that they are not against them and they just want them to be transferred quickly anywhere else in Italy. They also wanted the Tunisians to join but most of them were too scared to get in trouble."
"In the end they had to let them unload the tents because otherwise the ferry would not leave with their fish and it would have been a problem for the many fishermen on the Island."
Currently there are around a thousand Tunisians sleeping rough in the port area, many with wet clothes and no blankets, almost no food and only 1 litre of milk a day between 5 people. Many are falling ill from being cold and constantly wet (it has also been raining and there is little shelter). Local police have been giving many of them their waterproofs and their lunch too. "A whole family with a small kid, some minors and some very young women arrived. They brought the women and the minors into a building [owned by] the council. I saw them arriving. Many were walking bare foot and were half naked."
Many of the refugees had taken part in anti-government demonstrations and who had been arrested and beaten and are afraid because Ben Ali's cronies are still in charge in Tunisian despite the Jasmine revolution. Consequently they have good asylum cases but there is little legal advice available on their rights to asylum. Many also say they just want to reach their relatives in France or just want a job, both of which will hold no sway with the authorities and is certain to get them locked up in a camp and deported.