Holiday island off Sicily fears steadily rising influx of 'clandestini' will replace smart yachts with rusting tubs

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The Independent Online

"Do with them? I'll tell you what they should do with them. The government should put them in a bloody great ship out there" - the agitated man in the green T-shirt gestured out to sea - "and put all the immigrants in that, then tow it round to Mr Berlusconi's place in Rome!"

It was 5.30pm yesterday, a fine afternoon in Lampedusa, a holiday island of blonde beaches and turquoise sea south-west of Sicily, and the cruise boats were returning to port with their cargos of expensively toasted tourist flesh.

Then the alarm went up: "They've arrived!" Three policemen jumped in their rubber boat and headed out to sea.

Last Monday a boat crammed with immigrants sank some 30kms south of here. Only three survivors have been found and 11 bodies. But more immigrants keep pouring into the island every day: 100 earlier yesterday from another boat that sank - all the victims picked up alive by fishing boats - and now yet another.

News of the event flashed around the harbour, and in minutes a convoy of scooters and cars had roared to the end of the causeway, among them the man in green. "It's a Bedouin spectacular," he roared out at the waves. "A Bedouin spectacular in Lampedusa!"

While we watched, three coastguard patrol ships appeared round the point, with a big grey ship of the Finance Police bringing up the rear. In the thick of them, low in the water, dwarfed by their bulk, was the latest immigrant tub: a rusting fishing boat with all tackle left behind, people squeezed onto every inch of deck.

"Bring Berlusconi here with his family!" yelled the man in green. "Let them see the show!" Within 20 minutes Lampedusa's latest batch of clandestini, as they call the illegal immigrants, were squatting tightly packed on the quayside. Coastguards wearing surgical masks led the 75 migrants by the arm down the patrol ship's gangplank and sat them down. All were men, most in their 20s or 30s, some in their teens. There was scarcely any emotion on their faces. Exhaustion, hunger and thirst had robbed them of reactions.

Dully they did as they were told, squatting down, looking neither to right or left, barely taking an interest in their surroundings, lost for words.

A few spoke some English. "We are from Iraq," said a man of about 35. "We all came together from Baghdad, via Turkey. We have been on the water for five days. Yes, we are very hungry and thirsty. We came because we have no jobs, we are looking for jobs. We speak no Italian. We don't know anybody here."

One or two men looked in poor shape: faces grey, lips trembling uncontrollably. A bad-tempered doctor from an organisation called Misericordia checked blood pressure and administered shots of glucose. A few minutes later they were packed into vans for transfer to the reception centre by the island's airport, surrounded by rolls of razor wire.

"It's crazy, it's completely out of hand." That was the reaction of an Italian television journalist as we stood on the end of the quay half an hour earlier, waiting for the clandestini to come over the horizon. "It just doesn't stop, it goes on and on.

"Someone's making money from this, they must be. Do you know how much Italy is paying these people in food, drink, medicines - how much we, the Italian people, are paying? Eighteen euros each per day!"

In the past month Lampedusa has become the epicentre of an extraordinary influx of boat people. More than 3,500 have arrived since the beginning of June, and the total for the year is nearing 6,000. That is nearly as many as arrived during all of last year, which in turn was the highest number ever. Talk here is of an island under siege, of an armada of clandestini pouring in.

They come to this island, a lump of rock with cacti and the cleanest, most alluring sea in the Mediterranean, because it is the closest European landfall: a few days by rusty fishing boat from Libya or Tunisia. Seventy kilometres south of Sicily, Lampedusa has the dry heat, the vivid blue skies of north Africa, and something of the African languor and informality, too: the man who rented me a car had no interest in seeing my driving licence and did not want to be bothered with any paperwork.

Yet Lampedusa is also rigorously white and European: they seem to be making a special point of it. The holidaymakers are mostly from Milan and other points in northern Italy, and the people looking after them are all white Italians. Apart from the 75 new arrivals on the quayside, I have yet to see a non-white face on the island - whereas in the rest of Italy, extracommunitari (people from outside the EU) are everywhere these days. The only sight Lampedusa gets of the immigrants is if they make a special expedition to see them squatting on the dock; they might catch a fleeting glimpse through the bus windows as they are ferried to the reception centre. Within days they are processed and dispatched to the permanent camps on the Italian mainland.

So the hoteliers of Lampedusa are infuriated to see the season's promise crumbling as the cancellations pour in, and for no good reason. "The only reason my mobile keeps ringing is people asking for information about new North Africans arriving," grumbles one hotelier, Franco Maraventano. "This time last year it was ringing non-stop with people beseeching me to keep them a room!"

When yet another Milanese rang up to enquire about the clandestini situation, he made him an offer. "I said, 'come to Lampedusa and if you see a single black during your stay, you can stay for nothing. But if you see none, you'll pay double.' "

"It's not Lampedusa's problem," insisted Salvatore Frangapani, painting his little cruise boat on the beach before the immigrants arrived. "It's Italy's problem, Europe's problem. We don't even see them. We have nothing to do with them."

And that's the way they want it to stay. It's a willed rejection of reality that is a microcosm of Western Europe's approach, or non-approach, to this gigantic human tragedy. The clandestini pass through Lampedusa as quickly and clinically as the authorities can manage; the problem is dropped in the rubbish bin and the lid brought down.

The only evidence that something out of the ordinary happened here is in the harbour, where the caste system for boats is rigid. On one side of the bay, where the water is bluest, a few splendid sailing boats are at anchor. Across the causeway are the ranks of the small fishing boats with their winches; jostling close to shore are the cruise boats.

And as far as possible from the town, parked against the causeway between the gleaming ships of the coastguard and the Finance Police, are the boats that brought the clandestini here: all penned together, festooned with red flags, the sad remains of their human cargo swilling about in the bilges - abandoned shoes, plastic water bottles, shirts and sweaters. One by one they are slowly breaking up and sinking.

"It's a real emergency," said the angry journalist, as the tub full of new arrivals came into view. "They just keep coming. Nothing will stop them."