Sunday, 3 April 2011

Beleaguered island

Imagine you live on a pretty Mediterran-ean island with a population of 5000. Then imagine being overrun by 20,000 strangers fleeing misery and hardship in their home countries.

This is the situation in the Italian island of Lampedusa, in between Sicily, Libya and Tunisia. It's one of the closest sanctuaries for people running from the civil war in Libya and economic turmoil in Tunisia*.

Chaos has taken over the island, which simply can't cope with the new arrivals and now resembles a makeshift refugee camp.

Around 6000 of the migrants have been sleeping rough, and all of them are relying on the goodwill of Lampedusans and relief workers for food, medical care and other essentials.

Some of the Tunisian men were tricked into the journey by traffickers telling them Europe would welcome them. With so many people fleeing war and upheaval, the welcome has turned decidedly chilly.

The Italian authorities are belatedly taking steps to move the migrants elsewhere and restore order to Lampedusa, which is also expecting the usual surge of tourists during the summer.

The existence of so many troublespots around the world has led to an increasing tide of refugees wanting to leave shattered countries and find more settled and prosperous lives elsewhere.

Many of the countries they go to are struggling to cope with the influx, not helped by an increasingly xenophobic public and their own economic difficulties.

But countries doing relatively well have a moral duty to take in those from less fortunate countries and help them to re-establish themselves. Those who feel no such duty and think migrants should simply be sent back home and left to their fates are heartless to say the least.

There but for fortune go you and I.

* also Egyptians and Moroccans


  1. ah how sad to be homeless ans unwanted. Australia has an appalling record with the way we treat refugees too. It makes me ashamed

  2. Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
    With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
    Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
    A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
    Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
    Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
    Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
    The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
    "Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
    With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

    (This is not posted ironically.)

  3. Although I guess maybe it should be.

  4. Taking in refugees sounds easy, but there are many needs to be taken into consideration - accommodation, health, education are but three. We in the West are not very good at speaking languages other than our own, this makes helping properly all the more difficult. It is not just for a week or two, it is a lifetime commitment.

  5. Myra - I was reading about the riots last week at Australia's detention centre on Christmas Island. Conditions there sound pretty awful.

    Megan - Oh, I know some of the lines but I had to look it up in Wikipedia. The Emma Lazarus sonnet in the Statue of Liberty. Unfortunately still more a worthy aspiration than a reality.

  6. Grannymar - I know, there are huge practical problems absorbing migrants. But we should do more to solve those problems rather than insisting we can't cope.

  7. One of the problems is there is no transitional assimilation process which would help enormously. Slowly introducing these unfortunates to their new environment and vice versa.
    In the coming years there will be much, much more of this and we need to be prepared and compassionate.

  8. I beg to differ. The so called refugees are opportunists. They come on the pretext of political assylum seeking, but in fact, it is economic. Having come in they start their ghettos and local population balances get affected. When there is religion involved besides language the situation gets worse. It has happened in India, continues to happen on and off, and I see this happening every time there is local turmoil in disturbed states.

  9. I didn't know about this but should, of course, have guessed. Re: the concept of America welcoming immigrants, I don't know about the rest of the country, but NYC is the most extraordinary melting pot of cultures, with recent additions (legal and otherwise) all the time. It is tricky but I like to think, to hope, that in times of real suffering and hardship, there will be succour for refugees in the places to which they flee...

  10. Wisewebwoman is right on the money.

  11. W3 - I don't know exactly what familiarising procedures there are in the UK, but no doubt they're not enough. It can be quite a struggle to find your way around a very different society.

    Ramana - There's a lot of criticism in the UK of so-called economic refugees but wanting a better economic future seems understandable to me. The issue as I see it is how to absorb them effectively into a society with different beliefs and values. I agree that where ghettos develop, they can cause a lot of problems.

  12. Leah - I like the fact that NYC has always had a reputation as a melting pot of cultures where anybody is welcome as long as they pull their weight. There seems to be much less of the simmering racism that affects other cities.

  13. We all need to remember that most of us spraang from immigrants ourselves.

  14. e - Exactly. Which is why we should be more welcoming to today's immigrants.

  15. Ah a can of worms Nick. We detain refugees who just arrive unannounced despite any hardship they might have had travelling here. Usually in expensive, leaky boats. Then we also find that some are not authentic. Pakistanis parading as Afghans. Hard to tell who's authentic and who just has the money to move when they destroy their papers and ostensibly have no identity. I can't imagine how hard it must be for little islands like this. But a xenophobic world we have become thanks to the nature of terrorism.

  16. It's a tough situation and fraught with difficulties that may be hard to predict, and yet I agree that we have a moral obligation to be compassionate.

  17. Secret Agent - It's very difficult. Of course there are migrants who fake their identities, destroy their papers, tell lies etc. But that doesn't mean we should turn away all the rest for fear that they're pulling a fast one.

  18. I've got more sympathy for the idea of trying to assimilate refugees than I do with the idea of "helping" them by bombing their country - now there's a can of worms...
    Realistically though, Lampedusa's never going to cope with refugees outnumbering the locals 4-1.

  19. Macy - My priorities too. The irony is that people talk about the cost of dealing with immigrants, but how about the cost of bombing other countries?

  20. We are all refugees from the Garden of Eden.

  21. newjenny - We are indeed. And most of this troubled world falls a long way short of that idyllic location.

  22. There but for fortune go you and I.
    I often think this.

  23. Scarlet - Indeed. Just a few tweaks to our life circumstances - where we were born, what sort of parents we had, how well-off they were - and our lives could be very different.

  24. I always think I am so fortunate to live here and that it is, as you say, a case of there but for fortune.

  25. Liz - We're very fortunate living in a comparatively peaceful country that isn't perpetually torn apart by violence.

  26. There are enough countries on this planet to be able to accomodate them, it's dreadful when refugees are rejected.

  27. Val - There certainly are. But people attach any number of strange fears and suspicions to outsiders.