Lampedusa Tightens Migrant Controls After Failed Experiment in Open Borders

Europe
AP Photo/Francesco Malavolta
THOMAS D. WILLIAMS, PH.D.

After trouncing the incumbent Lampedusa mayor in elections this past summer, Salvatore Martello immediately began fulfilling campaign promises to get a grip on uncontrolled immigration and has now brought the population of the island’s welcome center down to a manageable 100.

On being elected, Martello’s first act of government was to threaten to shut down the center—or “hotspot,” as the Italians call it—in a move designed to show how serious he was about containing the massive influx of undocumented migrants amidst a rash of crimes and social unrest.

In an interview Tuesday with the Italian daily Il Giornale, the new mayor describes the move as a deliberate “provocation,” designed to bring attention back to respect for the law and the dignity of citizens, along with the well-being of migrants.

The island of Lampedusa represents Italy’s southernmost point and the nearest point of entry for Africans into the European Union at a distance of just 70 miles (113 km) from Tunisia.

“Police are powerless,” Martello wrote in an open letter at the time, insisting that Lampedusa’s overflowing migrant center had produced chaos, with “constant thefts in clothing and food shops.”

“The bars are full of Tunisians who are drunk and harass women,” he said. “I receive dozens of messages daily from frightened tourists, hoteliers, traders and restaurateurs who are suffering.”

In May of 2016, in fact, Tunisian migrants burned down a refugee welcome center on Lampedusa and afterward claimed that they did so because they did not want to be deported. At the time, the reception center of Imbriacola housed some 530 asylum-seekers.

Pope Francis had shined a bright spotlight on Lampedusa in 2013 by making it the scene of his first apostolic visit, drawing attention to African migrants who had died in a fatal shipwreck off the island while attempting the crossing.

The compliant former mayor, Giusi Nicolini, held up Lampedusa as a model of open acceptance of migrants en route from North Africa to Europe.

Nicolini was a protégée of former prime minister Matteo Renzi, who even took her along on a U.S. trip to the White House, introducing her to President Obama as a champion of immigration. Nicolini’s face was plastered on dozens of magazine covers and she was a frequent guest of Italian talk shows as the savior of refugees. The former mayor was even awarded a UNESCO peace prize for her “humanity, and her constant efforts in managing the refugee crisis.”

It turns out that Lampedusa’s transformation into a global symbol of open borders positivity, with the capacity to hold and process almost limitless numbers of migrants before transferring them to the Italian mainland, came after Nicolini signed a “memorandum of understanding” with George Soros’ Open Society Initiative for Europe (OSIFE).

In the memorandum, Nicolini agreed to let Soros’s international funding network “help strengthen Lampedusa’s capacity [to take migrants] and promote the island’s population and its guests.”

All of the accolades for the mayor came screeching to a halt at the polls last summer, however, when Lampedusans demanded a mayor who would restore order to the island.

According to Il Giornale, the social climate has changed significantly in Lampedusa, with less Pollyannaish naivete and more realism.

The new mayor himself insists that he is not opposed to receiving migrants, “but as long as it is managed with intelligence.”

“If the hot spot is designed to accommodate a certain number of guests, you cannot admit triple that number,” he said. “If you have decided that they must stay within the gates, you cannot allow them to roam freely in the village, harassing the citizens.”

As Italians gear up for national elections on March 4, dealing with the immigration crisis consistently appears among the top three concerns that voters will take with them to the polls.

Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter

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