Originally published in The Spectator
The young hang about in packs or speed around town, two to a scooter. Old women group together on benches around the town square in front of the church. The men continually greet each other as though they haven’t met for years. The likelihood is small. With fewer than 6,000 inhabitants, and as close to Libya as it is to Italy, Lampedusa is the sort of place from which any ambitious young Italian would spend their life trying to escape. Yet every day hundreds and sometimes thousands of people are risking their lives to get here.
‘Please tell people we have nice beaches,’ one islander pleads. And indeed they do, but the fact is that today the island is not famous for tourists (there is only one other guest at my hotel) but for the boatloads of migrants who are trying to make their way towards this most southerly point of Europe. It is a strange fate. Over the centuries this small scrap of land has been populated, depopulated after pirate raids and repopulated again. But what has happened in recent years is new. People have fled northern Africa for years. Lampedusa’s graveyard attests to that. Buried alongside the locals are some of those who set out for the island whose journey ended in the sea. (‘Migrante non identificato. Qui riposa,’ says one of the grave-markers put down by the local government. ‘29 Settembre 2000.’)