In 1942 Malta was awarded the George Cross “to bear witness to the heroism and devotion of its people” during the Axis siege of the island. It was in a similar spirit that Italians were lining up this week to sign a petition to award Lampedusa the “Medaglia d’oro al valor civile” – the Gold Medal of Civil Valour – for its comportment during the recent tragedy that has filled the island’s aircraft hangar with more than 300 coffins, some of them very small. The news magazine L’Espresso has gone further, proposing that the island be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize 2014.
What can the islanders say to that? Probably what people must have said in Malta in ‘42 – what else could we do? What could we do but withstand, lend a hand, find evidence of our shared humanity? Better that than the impudent inhumanity of Umberto Bossi, then leader of the Northern League, who during an earlier drowning disaster in 2006 declared, “I want to hear the roar of canon! The immigrants must be hunted down, for better or worse! At the second or third warning – boom! Fire the canons at them! Otherwise this will never stop!”
Dr Pietro Bartolo was one of Lampedusa’s exemplary islanders, rising from his sick bed last week after word arrived of another boat in trouble. He laboured day and night for four days, tending to the sick, the dying and the dead. He was on hand 22 years ago when the very first migrant boat hoved into view carrying three Tunisians. “People didn’t know what was happening, they were screaming, ‘the Turks are upon us!’” Bartolo recalled.
The power of numbers is an extraordinary thing: migrants have been turning up in Lampedusa month after month, year after year – some 200,000 since 1991, counting the living and the dead. Italians are so numbed by the repetition that it barely makes the national news any more. But the scale of the latest disaster, the circumstances and the numbers of women and children, suddenly caused it to flare up as a source of sorrow, rage, indignation, even – with the discussion of Gold Medals and Nobel Prizes – pride. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Enrico Letta was there with Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, promising €30m of EU sticking plaster. Islanders were waiting for them. “Clowns! Assassins!” they shrieked as they passed.
Dr Bartolo rejects the view, widely-held in Italy, that the Lampedusans are utterly fed up with the arrivals. “One thing I really hate is to read these polemics about Lampedusans,” he told Corriere della Sera. “This story of the fishing boat which saw a boat sinking and turned around and failed to stop – it’s rubbish, I don’t believe it at all…Even those [on the island] who say they are fed up with the immigrants and say, ‘why don’t they block them from coming?’ – they are the first to rush out to lend a hand.”
That may well be the case. But the bald fact is that the immigrant boats are a regular blight on the only thing which keeps the island in business, the flow of summer tourists, especially from Milan, who crave hot African sun and gorgeous Mediterranean sea without the hassle of going abroad or encountering foreigners, especially black ones. While I was on the island reporting a similar tragedy some years ago, a local hotelier told me that potential guests were ringing non-stop to ask about the immigrant situation. “I tell them, come to Lampedusa and if you see a single black during your stay, you can stay for nothing. But if you see none, you pay double.”
All this chatter – Italians as splendid people or racists, the promise of yet more EU money when hundreds of millions have already been wasted, the fatuous talk of giving the island a Nobel Prize – only distracts from the real issue: what is in Europe’s power to do to change the political and economic situation in countries like Eritrea and Somalia, so their young people no longer feel the need to risk their lives in this way, but instead stay put? No other question really matters.