The Italian island of Lampedusa is a thriving tourist destination attracting people from all over the world, but not all of its visitors are holiday makers. For years staggering numbers of migrants have been landing on its shores, having survived the treacherous boat journey from countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Their intended destination is mainland Europe: Their dreamland of opportunity.
A large proportion of the migrants come from Libya, trying to escape persecution or looking for work. Although the journey from Tripoli (in Libya) to Lampedusa takes approximately 16 hours by boat, bad weather and other unforeseen circumstances often result in it taking much longer. People regularly drown in shipwrecks or die of thirst along the way.
Having heard stories about the migrants and the poor conditions in which they were being kept when they arrived, photographer, Simone Perolari and his journalist friend decided to make the trip to Lampedusa in 2004. What they witnessed confirmed everything.
“We were led to the place where the boat arrived. It was being dragged by the border control officers. It was the beginning of a traumatic experience. Seeing all those people arriving, counting the men and women as if they were objects, helping women and babies. Everything left us in shock. On the first night the people were sent to a place called the ‘shelter’ (which had nothing of a shelter about it) and then they were left to themselves.”
Perolari is referring to the ‘Contrada Imbriacola’ initial reception and accommodation centre. It has since been criticised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for its inhumanely cramped conditions. In 2009 it was found that the centre, designed to house a maximum of 850 people, was actually housing approximately 2000 with many sleeping in make-shift tents outside.
“The lucky ones, in 2004, were sent to (mainland) Italy and then, according to the authorities, transferred to their country of origin” says Perolari. “It is clear that no one goes back though, they all become clandestine and outlaws. The unlucky ones were sent back right away, forced to reorganise a trip to Europe and relive this dangerous and life-threatening experience.”
That very year an agreement, that defied existing national and international laws, was made between the Italian and Libyan governments. It obliged Libya to accept deported African immigrants from Italy, despite lack of endorsement from the European Parliament. This led to an overwhelming number of deportations to Libya in 2004/2005 and denied many the right to apply for asylum (a violation of the Geneva Convention, signed by Italy.)
“This work, being the first important experience of this kind for me, was probably the most difficult. I couldn’t understand why the legitimate desire to achieve freedom and better living conditions resulted in men being treated like animals and risking their lives for nothing.”
Moved and troubled by the plight of the migrants, Perolari went on to photograph similar situations in other European countries in collaboration with Amnesty International. In 2009 he travelled to Patrasso in Spain, and in 2010 to Calais. He was also commissioned by Amnesty International to provide photographs for the ‘Invisibili’ campaign; an Italian and Belgian campaign aimed at raising awareness of the rights of undocumented minors in detention centres.
“After Lampedusa I went to Mellila, a Spanish enclave in Moroccan territory, where the situation was no better. That said, in 2005 the refugees were given maps and could at least enter and exit the refugee centre. Unlike Lampedusa, Melilla is not a tourist location, so they were given more freedom but still had no chance of reaching Europe.”
For many years in Lampedusa, the government had ensured that the ‘ugly’ issue of immigration was kept well away from the island locals and holiday-makers. Migrants were confined to the centre for weeks, before being transferred to other mainland centres. Perolari describes it as, “A real island prison where human rights are optional.”
In September 2011, a riot and arson attack at the centre resulted in 800 migrants escaping onto the streets of Lampedusa, where they were met with hatred and violence from police and fascist thugs. Shortly afterwards, almost all of the escapees were rounded up and deported and the centre was closed.
The closing of the centre meant that future migrants arriving by boat would have to face a significantly longer journey to the Sicilian harbour of Porto Empedocle, located an extra 200 kilometres away. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva criticised the closure, saying that the longer journey would cause an increase in migrant deaths. In 2011 alone, 1931 migrants are thought to have died whilst making the crossing.
It was around this time that Lampedusa had been experiencing an unsurprising surge in asylum seekers from Libya, following the outbreak of the NATO war against Muammar Gaddafi and his regime. The already stretched facilities on the island struggled to accommodate the hundreds of Libyans arriving on a weekly basis.
The centre finally reopened in July 2012 with a maximum capacity of only 350 places. Today its problems are even worse than before, with continuing high numbers of migrants, extreme overcrowding, and frustrated locals.
Lampedusa is only equipped to function as a stop-gap, where migrants stay for a maximum of a few days before being sent to mainland centres. Nevertheless, due to the continuing failure of the Italian government to put any regular transfer schedule in place, most are held for over a month. They sleep on the floor in crowded rooms where minors and adults are mixed, they receive little food, and only have access to extremely basic amenities. Unless the Italian government stops ignoring the issue, this inhumane treatment will continue indefinitely.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER.
Simone Perolari is an Italian photographer living in Paris, represented by the LUZ photography agency. His photo-project ‘unWelcome’ documents the struggles faced by migrants in immigration centres across Europe. To see more of his work visit www.simoneperolari.net
Written by Francesca Bassenger with many thanks to Simone Perolari.
Photographs © Simone Perolari.