Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

When we tried to revisit the best beaches in 2011, the road was blocked by police. The camps were not far away and no one was allowed near them

Andrew Grice
Monday 20 April 2015 01:52
Comments
Illegal African migrants arrive at the port in the Tunisian town of Zarzis, some 50 kilometres west of the Libyan border after Tunisian fishermen rescued 82 African migrants off the coast of the town aboard a makeshift boat bound for the Italian island of
Illegal African migrants arrive at the port in the Tunisian town of Zarzis, some 50 kilometres west of the Libyan border after Tunisian fishermen rescued 82 African migrants off the coast of the town aboard a makeshift boat bound for the Italian island of

The abiding image of my first visit to Lampedusa is of sandy beaches on a beautiful island – the southernmost part of Italy, my favourite country, a long-standing quest finally achieved.

The second visit, five years later in 2011, was very different. The most memorable image has haunted me ever since: an attractive harbour scarred by piles of flimsy wooden fishing boats, many of them wrecked by the cruel sea as desperate migrants tried to get to Europe from Tunisia and Libya, just 70 miles away.

It seemed a miracle that some 6,000 migrants had made it to Lampedusa – more than the island’s 3,500 population. The locals complained that the migrants were sleeping on the beach in insanitary conditions. They staged protests outside the town hall. By the time we arrived, the unwanted arrivals had been taken to makeshift camps.

When we tried to revisit the best beaches, the road was blocked by police. The camps were not far away and no one was allowed near them. Months later, an EU official who visited the camps told me the living conditions were “appalling, the worst I have ever seen”.

The locals repeatedly asked us: “Why here, why us?” They did not belittle the human tragedy suffered by the migrants, but wanted the EU to share the burden, not wash its hands.

Local people were still spitting blood about a flying visit to the island two months earlier by Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister. He promised the migrants would be removed to other parts of the country, said he had bought a villa on the island, and would nominate the island for the Nobel peace prize. His visits did not win many friends, or votes, it seemed.

That this happened four years ago makes this weekend’s tragedy all the more unspeakable. It was a disaster waiting to happen; the EU and its member states – Britain included – cannot say they were not warned.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in