Why Lampedusa Matters

Image of Lampedusa

An idyllic Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea, Lampedusa is perhaps best known as an entry point for migrants hoping to make their way to the European mainland. Lampedusa, geographically closer to North Africa than Italy, is a gateway of sorts for migrants from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

In recent years, arrivals at Lampedusa had begun to drop as European leaders signed shadowy agreements and memoranda of understanding with North and Sub-Saharan African leaders to curb the entry of migrants in exchange for various financial perks.

But that’s all changing now. One of the more underreported (in the English-speaking media, at least) side effects of political unrest in North Africa has been a resurgence of undocumented immigration to Lampedusa. To complicate matters, leaders in the region who were once Europe's allies in the effort to curb migration are losing political legitimacy or have been altogether ousted.

Over 8,700 Tunisians have landed in Lampedusa since mid-January, folllowing revolts that led to the overthrow of Ben Ali. Italian officials fear that the situation in Libya will only accelerate this trend. The Italian government has labeled the situation in Lampedusa a state of emergency—although the alarmist rhetoric may be part of an effort to stir up anti-immigrant sentiments. At the behest of the Italian government, Frontex (European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union) deployed Operation Hermes at the end of February to assist with the management of recent migrants.

As an Italian and a member of the European community, I believe that the language surrounding Lampedusa merits close examination:

  1. Discursive slippage between refugees, crime, and violence. Statements by Italian officials conflate higher levels of migration from Arab states with extremism, terrorism, violence, and weapons trafficking. This is a common strategy used by states to justify restrictive immigration policies. New arrivals are screened to determine if they are asylum seekers or economic migrants—a process that draws arbitrary boundaries between “worthy” and “unworthy” migrants.
  2. Use of language to hide the realities of immigrant detention. Although Italian immigration centers have a sordid history of abuse and inhumane conditions, this reality is often masked in official statements, news reports, and even in the process of naming (one type of secure detention in Italy is known as a “Welcome Center”). Said one reporter: “There are no detention centres in Italy. In places like this, people can come and go as they please.” (The Global Detention Project has more reliable information about detention in Italy.)
  3. Alarmist reportage and tired media cliches. As is all too common in immigration stories, journalists have resorted to catchy aquatic metaphors to describe the situation in Lampedusa: "Waves" of boats carrying Tunisian asylum-seekers to shore, "floods" of refugees, a "surge" of undocumented immigration, "tides" of migrants. Biblical metaphors have started to enter the fray as well: Italian officials have publicly voiced fear of a "Biblical-style exodus" from North Africa. This kind of language has the potential to dehumanize an entire population of migrants, reducing them to a faceless, ceaseless "flow" that must be stopped. Youth in Lampedusa are even using Facebook to protest against the media's exaggerated coverage of their island, fearing that overwhelming negative reports will have a harmful economic impact on the area's tourism industry. 

There are many other thought-provoking (or downright puzzling) aspects of the Lampedusa story. And it’s important to note that the situation is not unprecedented. The patterns of official, media, and and quotidian reaction to immigration have manifested themselves before in Italy, across Europe and (obviously), in the United States. 

But there’s a larger question here, too. How are technology, transnational connectedness, and social media changing the nature of borders? At a time when new media tools are allowing sentiments of political dissatisfaction to spread rapidly across borders, how will this impact patterns of migration and official responses to them?

(Updated March 15, 2011)