Island of dreams turns into a jail

European Times LAMPEDUSA, ITALY
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The Independent Online
UNTIL RECENTLY there was no ambulance on the island of Lampedusa, only a couple of policemen who dealt with any type of emergency. "Sirens are so rare that if we hear one everyone starts phoning the extended family to check they're all right," says Giandamiano Lombardo, leader of the local hoteliers' association.

Phone bills must have soared over the past couple of months. Millpond seas and fine weather have brought more illegal immigrants than ever flooding across from north Africa to this sleepy Italian island set in a breathtakingly sapphire sea.

This rocky outcrop 60 miles off the Tunisian coast is the first line in the battle to keep the clandestini on their side of the Mediterranean. Coastguard vessels fill the harbour, there's a police car on every corner and sirens wail ... well, several times a day at least.

"They go screeching at full speed down the main street in the evening, when it's a pedestrian precinct," says Mr Lombardo, shaking his head. "We can't cope with that. This is a slow-moving island. People simply aren't used to leaping out of the way."

Similarly, Lampedusa's 5,000-strong community - which depends on fishing and tourism for its living - is unused to seeing the island portrayed in a story-hungry summer press as a rough, violent outpost of European civilisation. Switch on any Italian television news programme and you'll see dejected Tunisians and Moroccans in disorderly ranks on the quay of the pretty harbour as they are searched and registered before being marched off to temporary accommodation in an old barracks near the airport. Or you'll see them transformed into furious aggressors, setting fire to that accommodation as they engage in hand-to-hand combat with the forces of law and order.

Wandering around the island, the scene could not be more different: bronzed, parasol-toting visitors stroll lazily from hotel to beach or buzz round the island in noisy little Mokes. The hotels are packed, the white sand body-lined, the azure coves dotted with pleasure craft. And if small groups of curious on-lookers gather on the quay from time to time as another boatload of aspiring immigrants is brought in, it's only to be expected: the influx has been going on almost non-stop since 1996, and clandestini are accepted as part of the scenery. Not so the new high- profile police presence.

"It's overkill," says Mr Lombardo. "All right, so the numbers of clandestini making it over are growing. But we've always got on well with our immigrants. Now that the coast is patrolled more efficiently, they're escorted in by coastguards. Before, they used to come ashore by themselves, politely ask the way to the police station, pick up their free ticket to Sicily, and that was the last we saw of them. We'd give them something to eat and drink, or maybe some clothes." The only trouble there ever was, he adds, was explaining the way to the tiny police station.

This year's government crackdown has changed that happy-go-lucky relationship. Clandestini know they face enforced repatriation; police know that their charges might go to desperate lengths to avoid it. Tension is high.

Why Lampedusa, where the economy will founder if tourists are scared away, should have been allowed to become the symbol of this desperation and tension is beyond residents. In the short term, it will not be hoteliers who suffer most but the fishermen who eke out a living with the island's ever-shrinking fleet. "Oh I'll be all right," admits Mr Lombardo. "I do most of my business through agencies, which explain that the whole thing's been blown out of all proportion."

To supplement their meagre income from the sea, fisher-families rent out flats to tourists through the island's summer, which stretches, with hardly a cloud in the sky, from May to November

Many flats will be empty this year, their usual occupants scared away by tales of horror in Paradise. Hundreds of families will find themselves short of money through the winter. Some may be forced to abandon fishing altogether, and the harbour's rows of brightly coloured fishing boats may all but disappear. From being an occasional hiccup in the dozy calm of the summer, the sad spectacle of grim, dour illegal immigrants being marched from port to barracks to airport may come to symbolise the Lampedusa experience. And the tourist trade will begin to feel the pinch.

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