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Too Many Tunisians, Not Enough Toilets

Lampedusa is Italy’s southernmost island. It’s so far south, in fact, that it is closer to Tunisia (70 miles) than Sicily (130 miles), and latitudinally it is actually lower than Tunis and Algiers. The island itself is tiny, with a...
May 1, 2011, 12:00am

Approximately 60 immigrants wait to get on a bus that will take them to a boat destined for mainland Italy.

Lampedusa is Italy’s southernmost island. It’s so far south, in fact, that it is closer to Tunisia (70 miles) than Sicily (130 miles), and latitudinally it is actually lower than Tunis and Algiers. The island itself is tiny, with a population of 6,300 full-time inhabitants. In the first weeks of February, following the ousting of Tunisian president Zine-El Abidine Ben Ali, more than 4,000 North African immigrants fled across the Mediterranean Sea and pulled ashore on the idyllic isle. That’s when the Italian government and media started squawking about an “immigrant emergency!” and a “Lampedusan crisis!” Tunisians and other refugees continued to pour in, Italy and the rest of Europe battled over where the refugees should be allowed to relocate, and the island was so overcapacity that the situation could have easily escalated into a full-fledged riot. All told, at least 20,000 people landed on Lampedusa, which had nowhere near the appropriate amount of water, sewage systems, or medical facilities to support the sudden influx. The local Center for Identification and Expulsion (CIE)—a cross between a shelter and a prison that houses fresh-off-the-boat immigrants—has a maximum capacity of 800 people but was “hosting” as many as 2,500. The predicament reached a critical point on March 28, when 2,000 asylum seekers entered Lampedusa within a 24-hour period. It wasn’t long before Italian interior minister Roberto Maroni announced that Italy would force many of the immigrants to return to Africa if Tunisia’s government couldn’t halt the perpetual stream of humanity.

This is Ahmed in the Matinas’ house, wearing hand-me-down clothes. The family would cook six and a half pounds of pasta at a time to feed dozens of immigrants, along with providing them jackets to wear. Obviously, the Lampedusans were angry that this type of story—more common than one would think—never made it in the papers.

On March 30, Italian prime minister Silvio “Sit on My Face” Berlusconi visited the island and put on his usual show, announcing in a single press conference that he would: evacuate all the immigrants from the island within 60 hours, “propose Lampedusa for the Nobel Peace Prize,” give the islanders a bunch of tax breaks, look into building a new golf course and casino on the island, and buy a villa on Lampedusa. After Berlusconi’s song-and-dance routine, around half the refugees were issued temporary visas and moved to other CIEs around Italy. (Many have since tried to enter France—Tunisia’s former occupier—but the French border police have been making this very difficult.) The other half have been repatriated to Tunisia. In short, thousands of Tunisians are bouncing around the EU and the Mediterranean, causing all sorts of problems for European governments. On April 11, a rebellion of the immigrants housed in the Lampedusan CIE led to a fire and more deportations. As of press time, most of the immigrants have been ferried off the island, but the implications of this mass exodus are still unclear. European and Mediterranean nations will be dealing with the problem for some time to come as the new arrivals try to find work and housing. One of Vice’s most trusted Italian photographers, Guido Gazzilli, recently returned from a trip to the island. The first thing he said to us was, “The media are full of shit.” Our interest piqued, we asked him to show us some pictures and tell us what he saw.

The authorities selected who would leave and who wouldn’t, seemingly at random. Obviously, the immigrants would say anything (“I’m sick,” “My leg’s broken”) just to get on the boat and leave the island. The officers would then choose 60 at a time and escort them to the loading docks.

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These are the makeshift tents on the “Hill of Shame,” where the majority of the island’s immigrants set up camp. After Berlusconi swept them all off the island, Guido snuck into their “homes” to take these pictures. Some of them had been living in dwellings like these for almost a month.

I went to Lampedusa when the “emergency” was on every Italian’s mind. It was the front page of every paper, the opener for every news cycle, and the topic of every talk show. I had seen many images and news stories that depicted Lampedusans as being furious at the devastation of the island by immigrants who were essentially squatting everywhere. The papers and TV broadcasts made it seem like the locals were wary of leaving their homes, their day-to-day lives destroyed.

The moment I landed, however, I quickly realized that Lampedusa looked more like a North African fishing island than an Italian one: Its colors, the wooden boats, the orange light, the sunburned grass, even the faces of the natives, looked North African. During my first hours on the island, I had trouble telling the locals apart from the immigrants. I also rapidly became aware that all of Italy had been force-fed a giant plate of bullshit by the media. The situation was the opposite of what had been reported: I witnessed charity. I saw the locals taking in these immigrants, feeding and clothing them. Some families hosted three or four immigrants under their roofs, while others let them sleep in their boats or their garages. I saw the Red Cross give out free meals twice a day. I was shocked at the difference between what I witnessed with my own eyes and what I’d seen on the news. Reporters had sensationalized it all and, as usual, had tried to tell the scariest possible version of the story to instill fear and drive up circulation and ratings. I also realized that all the TV-news crews and big-shot journalists did little more than hang out at the docks, filming the boats arriving and departing. I didn’t see any of them mixing with the townspeople, visiting them in their homes, or telling their true stories. Of course, this led to the locals mistrusting reporters. They didn’t like the tales that were being told about their island and instinctively didn’t trust me. But I think they saw that I was there on my own, without assistants or big cameras or jackets with pockets, cables, and logos. They began to understand that I was asking to talk to them honestly and tell their stories, so eventually opened their doors to me.

This is the rubbish the refugees left behind around one of their boats. Imagine dozens of people crossing the Mediterranean in vessels like this one.

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I immediately recognized the church as the center of activity. In terms of providing aid to the immigrants, the church was everywhere. The priests and the volunteers helped them economically, fed them, and organized a drive for secondhand clothes. I met two local volunteers—Pippo and Maurizio—who helped the immigrants find showers and get cleaned up.

The CIE has been packed to the brim for months and some people had been living in the streets without water, food, or electricity. The CIE’s capacity is around 800, but when I arrived there were between 1,200 and 1,400 people staying there. There was also a center for women and children—a converted American army base built during World War II that contained approximately 200 refugees—and another center for older minors, which also housed around 200 or 300 souls. By my estimate, there were another 5,000 to 6,000 immigrants living outside the holding structures. Everything and anything the volunteers did helped the situation, and most of the island’s population had transformed into a huge volunteer force overnight. Most of the new arrivals were staying on what the Italian media dubbed, with their usual flair for the dramatic, the “Hill of Shame,” which was located directly behind the docks. It looked like an improvised slum. Every morning, the Tunisians would move from the hill to the docks and wait there all day, hoping to get picked by the authorities—who made their selections without any discernible method—to get on one of the boats leading to CIEs in Civitavecchia, Crotone, or Campobasso. Shockingly, many of the stranded didn’t realize that Lampedusa wasn’t mainland Italy until they set foot on the island. Some of the most desperate tried escaping from the CIE, as if they would be able to walk across 500 miles of sea to the Italian mainland. The guards set out to look for them nonetheless.

This is an old storage area that immigrants found on a hill, close to the beach. Dozens slept here. It smelled very bad.

Pippo and Maurizio introduced me to a local Catholic family—the Matinas—who were hosting a lot of immigrants. That’s how I met Ahmed, a 23-year-old Tunisian. The Matinas gave him clothes, allowed him to use the bathroom, cooked for him, and made him coffee, but they didn’t have space in their house for him to sleep so he crashed wherever he could. “As soon as I came into the house, they said, ‘This house is your house now,’” Ahmed told me, wearing a shirt that had belonged to the Matinas’ elder son. “I feel so lucky to have met them.” Ahmed seemed exhausted—elated one moment and nervous the next. He had been on the island nine days and was constantly on the move, trying to figure out whether he could get papers, attempting to reach an uncle who had emigrated to Italy years before, and happy to be on dry land even though he was nervous about possibly having to be sent back to Tunisia. Compared with those who didn’t find a hospitable family like the Matinas, Ahmed was lucky. The Matinas even wanted him to stay on the island permanently and were hoping to get him a job at a local bar, but Ahmed had to be moved to another CIE. Before leaving, he gave their daughter his Koran as a gift. She gave him her crucifix. Since then, I’ve kept in touch with Ahmed. I visited him in his current CIE in Civitavecchia, which holds 400 people. My wish is to continue to follow him around, help him, and, if I can, reach his uncle in Sicily. Ahmed told me he that he earned 60 euros a month as a waiter in Djerba (the largest island in North Africa, off the coast of Tunisia), where he lived before heading to Lampedusa. To get to Italy he had to pay border crossers 800 euros (approximately $1,150) for a 25-hour boat ride in a tiny fishing vessel packed with another two dozen Tunisians. His mother had sold half her belongings in order to help him pay for the trip. “I left for my future, for my family,” he told me. “For my mother. I can only thank God, who helped me cross over and made me meet this wonderful family, who took me in. The Lampedusans have good hearts. They are kind to Algerians, Tunisians, Moroccans, and Libyans. There is no racism, unlike the French. I only ask God that he grant me luck, and to be able to send my mother to Mecca and to buy her a nice house and a gold bracelet.”