Italy's migrant island reaches breaking point

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Italy's migrant island reaches breaking point

Italy's migrant island reaches breaking point
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Lampedusa is an island on the brink of implosion.

This tiny scrap of land on the southernmost edge of Europe has not only borne the brunt of arrivals from Tunisia this year. Over the last decade it has been in and out of the headlines, as an entry-point to Europe for desperate African migrants seeking a better life.

Only around 100 kilometres from Tunisia’s coastline, Lampedusa is European, but geographically closer to Africa.

Migrants began arriving in the 1990s. Their numbers continued to rise, reaching a record of 36,000 in 2008. Figures then dropped until the current turmoil in the Arab world. Since January, some 20,000 people have landed.

Outnumbered by so many uninvited guests, Lampedusa’s normal population of around 5,000

is feeling the strain, with tempers starting to flare.

“Does the government know we have been sending our children away?” asked local resident Concetta Billeci. “It does not know this. Most mothers have been sending their kids to relatives because the air here is unbreathable.”

Only built for around 800 people, Lampedusa’s holding centre is inundated and sanitary conditions are grim.

But outside it is worse. Despite efforts to keep themselves clean, facilities are lacking and a strong smell of unwashed bodies pervades.

Almost all of them young men in search of work in Europe, the migrants are stuck in makeshift encampments while waiting to be moved to the mainland. They kill time, wandering around the island, with evidence of the crisis all around.

Lampedusa lives from fishing and tourism, both of which are suffering.

Its hospitable culture and a maritime tradition of assisting those in distress has so far helped prevent serious problems with its residents. But, as the number of new arrivals soars, Lampedusa looks to be at breaking point.

“You can’t go from 800 to 5,000 or 6,000, otherwise you lose all balance,” said Salvatore Martello, a local businessman and former mayor of Lampedusa.

“And just as that balance is being broken at the holding centre, it is also being broken with regard to the very small population which needs to live in peace.”

Residents have shown a striking lack of resentment against the migrants, reserving most of their anger for the government. But unless the situation is brought under control, and quickly, Lampedusa’s hopes of a return to peace and quiet look destined to end up on the rocks.