Europe's twilight zone

As the world looks to Libya, a refugee crisis unfolds

Night after night they huddle together in groups, desperately trying to stay warm. The lucky ones scavenge blankets and plastic sheeting, or gather around sputtering fires. Others sleep on the hillsides, waiting for help to arrive.

While the world focuses its attention on events in the Middle East and North Africa, a humanitarian crisis is under way in Europe. This is Lampedusa, a tiny piece of normally unspoilt Italian paradise in the southern Mediterranean that has become a fetid refugee camp for thousands of desperate people fleeing turmoil and poverty.

Located closer to Tunisia than to Italy, Lampedusa has long been accustomed to a trickle of refugees landing on its shores. But nothing could have prepared it for the onslaught that has overrun the population of only 5,000. Over the past two months, an estimated 20,000 migrants have flocked to the island in an exodus that has, until recently, been ignored by the Italian government and the rest of Europe. For much of the past fortnight, there have been more than 6,000 migrants – including 350 children – sleeping rough in what Amnesty International has described as "appalling" conditions.

Some of the "clandestines" – as locals call them – are asylum-seekers fleeing conflict in Libya and sub-Saharan Africa. But the vast majority are young Tunisian men, economic migrants tricked by unscrupulous traffickers into thinking that Europe will welcome them with open arms.

What greets them instead is a scene of desperation. Across the island's main town, refugees sleep in the open, relying on the goodwill of Lampedusans and relief workers for food and medical care. Virtually every doorway now serves as a bed for someone, makeshift encampments line the harbour front, and the steep embankment overlooking the port has been turned into a tent city that has been dubbed by locals "the hill of shame".

Imed Shabi, a 24-year-old Tunisian from Sfax, paid smugglers €500 to make the eight-hour voyage in a rickety boat crammed with fellow migrants. "I came because I wanted to find a new life, a life filled with hope and the rule of law," he said. "I had no idea that the situation would be this bad. If I [had known] I would be homeless and hungry, I would never have come." For the past 10 days, Mr Shabi and his friends have slept under lorries, using plastic bags to try to catch fish in the azure waters surrounding the island.

"I have come to look for work and a new life," Fathi Ben Ali, a 22-year-old Tunisian, said. "Yes, there was a revolution in Tunisia, but it's just the same people in charge again. Jobs are now even harder to find."

After weeks of vacillating over the crisis, Italy's central government finally began speeding up removals to the mainland – but only after Lampedusans stormed their town hall. At worst, islanders say, the government's refusal to react quickly to the exodus was a deliberate attempt to let things deteriorate to such a point that potential new arrivals from North Africa would be put off making the journey, and Italy's neighbours would be shamed into taking up some of the slack. At best, it was simple incompetence.

But earlier this week, in a classic piece of political showmanship, the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, rode to the rescue and promised that Lampedusa would be free of all immigrants within 60 hours.

The premier jetted in and said he would nominate the island for a Nobel Peace Prize, give locals tax breaks and launch a tourist advertising drive on his own satellite channels.

Mass removals finally got under way as hundreds of police officers were drafted in and ferries were dispatched to collect the migrants. On Wednesday, 1,700 were taken across the Mediterranean to Apulia on the Italian mainland. But by yesterday afternoon, the removals had been halted because of high winds, with two passenger ships forced to anchor at sea until the weather calmed down. The migrants, meanwhile, fearful that the ferries would take them back to Tunisia, took to the streets.

The islanders remain cautiously hopeful that some type of solution will be found in time for the summer tourist months on which the island depends.

"We've tried our best to help these people and we feel desperately sorry for them, but the island has been overwhelmed," said Andrea Green, who runs the La Roccia campsite. The only people staying this week at La Roccia were a phalanx of carabinieri police and civil guard officers who had been billeted there.

Mr Berlusconi has announced that he will fly to Tunis next week to discuss the migrant problem. But in the meantime, the boats keep coming. Yesterday, the Tunisian coastguard announced that it had recovered the bodies of 27 people who had drowned when their boat sank in bad weather.

Until the overthrow of Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali and the ongoing rebellion against Colonel Gaddafi, Italy had relied on agreements with Tunisia and Libya to stop the clandestines from sailing over in return for aid. The arrival of immigrants had slowed to a trickle, though human rights groups reported widespread abuses by Tunisian and Libyan forces. But now the revolutions across North Africa have broken down the security apparatus.

"Until recently, the smugglers had all but given up trying to get people across from Libya, Morocco and Tunisia," said Anna Triandafyllidou, of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. "Instead they tended to take people through Egypt, Turkey and into Europe through Greece. But the political changes have opened up new frontiers. The longer the chaos continues in North Africa, the greater the chance that we will see more refugees coming over in boats."

Lampedusa illustrates Europe's ongoing inability to take responsibility for the waves of immigrants flooding into those countries that are on the continent's front line with North Africa and Asia.

Under European Union rules, immigrants should be catered for by their port-of-entry countries, which leaves states such as Greece and Italy struggling to cope. Regular appeals to Brussels for extra help by Italy have been rebuffed, although the EU has now agreed to double its aid package to Tunisia. The Italian government has been particularly critical of France, seen by most of the French-speaking Tunisian migrants as their country of choice, for turning back scores of migrants earlier this week as they crossed the border near Ventimiglia, in northern Italy.

"Europe has been absolutely inactive on this," fumed Italy's Foreign minister, Franco Frattini. The migrants themselves, meanwhile, know they are hostage to events outside of their control. When asked whether he thinks Europe should be doing more to help, 32-year-old Hussein Mousa's eyes fill with tears as he points to the tent city. "Just look at it," he says, "What more do you want me to say? It's a disaster."

Italy wakes up to the trouble on its doorstep

National opinion, beyond Lampedusa, over the escalating North African migration crisis has been fairly muted, but disquiet is growing as more and more immigrants disperse throughout the country. And yesterday, centre-right politicians expressed increasing alarm over the security situation as reports showed scores of migrants escaping with impunity from detention centres in the south of Italy. One junior minister has already resigned over the number of people – 2,300 – being sent to his part of the country, Manduria, in Apulia, and Umberto Bossi, the leader of the anti-immigration Northern League, has told the migrants to "get lost" in rude northern dialect.

Migrants fleeing the holding camps reached Milan yesterday, where they were held by police. The city's right-wing deputy mayor, Riccardo De Corato, blamed "illegal immigrants" for much of the crime committed by non-Europeans in the north, and said it was "vital" that the camps should be guarded by the military and the police.

But there was some sympathy. Angelo Bonelli, the leader of Italy's Green party, blamed the government for allowing a situation to arise "which is threatening to cancel out [local communities'] sense of hospitality".

Michael Day in Milan