Bodies of African immigrants pile up around sunbathers

  • @peterpopham

Five hundred illegal immigrants have arrived on Lampedusa in the past week, under the eyes of Italians taking an early summer break on the island's sandy beaches.

Like tens of thousands before them, they made their European landfall here after long journeys through Africa: sneaking across closely guarded borders, hiding in dunes in the Sahara, passed from one gang of people-traffickers to another like merchandise, robbed of what little they had at the start of the journey. Most have spent all the money they had on the trip, and often their families' savings too. If they have made it this far they are lucky: more than 2,000 have died trying to get into Europe this way in the past 15 years.

Lampedusa is the southernmost point of Italy, halfway between Malta and Tunisia. You wouldn't come to Lampedusa for the scenery, which is rocks and scrub and yucca plants and poorly concealed rubbish tips. Little that says "Italy" has made it to this speck in the Mediterranean, little that says la dolce vita.

But if sun, sand and aquamarine water are your thing, you could do worse. Hundreds of Italians, Milanese especially, pile off flights from the mainland every summer weekend.

Every summer, the island experiences this dual invasion: thousands of sun-seekers, and thousands of migrants trying to get away from countries where their lives are at risk, or to start a new life where there is hope for a decent future. The tourists disembark from their planes in view of the migrants' reception centre. One of the popular beaches is in full view of the dock where the immigrant boats are towed in. There is no contact.

If you leave the coast of Libya and sail north, Lampedusa is the first place you make landfall. Today, as many times every year, the reception centre next to the airport is full to bursting. It is equipped to accommodate only 190 people. There are only eight toilets, and they don't work well. There is nowhere for fresh arrivals to sleep. A state of emergency has been declared.

The latest arrivals have been fortunate: the weather has been fine and the sea flat. But in the recent past, coast guards have described ghastly scenes. In October 2003 they boarded a dilapidated wooden fishing boat in mid-ocean where the dead and the still-just-alive were all mixed up together, the survivors wailing for help. When the corpses had been removed, one young woman, unconscious and barely breathing but still alive, was found trapped underneath them.

Fifteen survived and 13 died, but survivors said about another 70 had alrdady been tossed overboard. Earlier that year, in June 2003, more than 200 died when their grossly overloaded vessel sank.

Yet Italy has hardened its heart to the clandestini. Umberto Bossi, leader of the Northern League, Silvio Berlusconi's closest ally, said of the 200 dead: "They died while travelling, like many people on the roads." Earlier in the year he said of the immigrant boats: "I want to hear the roar of cannon! The immigrants must be hunted down, for better or worse. At the second or third warning - "Boom! Fire the cannons at them! Otherwise this will never stop."

If you sit on the quay in Lampedusa long enough you can see the haves and have-nots processing into the dock: the pleasure boats with their cargoes of toasting trippers, puttering home from a day on the water; then the word goes up, "Another one's arrived!" and the coastguard's ship comes into view, towing the latest heavily laden migrant vessel behind it.

Coastguards wearing rubber gloves and surgical masks march them up the gangplank and give them a bottle of water and sit them in tight formation on the dock where a doctor gives them a look-over. Thirsty and suffering from exposure their faces are grey; lips tremble uncontrollably.

Almost identical scenes occur hundreds of miles away in the Canary Islands, where nearly 1,000 immigrants have arrived by sea in the past week. On Fuerteventura, the island that is a night and a day's sail from the African coast, the villas of British and German holidaymakers have a front-row view of the frequent arrivals.

This is often the last thing they want to see or think about on holiday. On Lampedusa, a man painting his boat said: "This is not Lampedusa's problem. It's Italy's problem, it's Europe's problem. We don't even see them. We have nothing to do with them."