Tensions rise in Lampedusa, a small Italian island, over swell of economic migrants

Europe’s human rights commissioner has called on the continent to welcome Afghan refugees with open arms. But this latest chapter in the refugee and migrant crisis will add to thousands of people, mainly from Africa, still making the desperate journey. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant just returned from the Italian island of Lampedusa, off the coast of Tunisia, where he filmed this report.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Europe's human rights commissioner has called on the continent to welcome Afghan refugees with open arms.

    But this latest chapter in the refugee and migrant crisis will add to the thousands of people, mainly from Africa, already making the desperate journey.

    Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant has just returned from the Italian island of Lampedusa off the coast of Tunisia, and sent us this report.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Dawn on Lampedusa, a speck of Italian soil less than a hundred miles from the Tunisian coast.

    Lampedusa is closer to Africa than it is to mainland Europe. This summer, the island has experienced a renewed surge of migrants reaching its shores. On Saturday, Italian Coast Guards rescued nearly 800 people from several unseaworthy craft that had launched from Tunisia and Libya in North Africa.

  • Siaka Kenny, Liberian Migrant:

    Oh, it was easy, thank God. I'm alive, and I'm very happy to be here.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Within the space of 24 hours, this influx from sub-Saharan Africa and Muslim northern coastal countries increased Lampedusa's 6,000-strong population by almost 15 percent.

    Many of the Africans are economic migrants, rather than refugees from conflict or political persecution. Among them was a 32-year-old Liberian called Siaka Kenny, who described himself as a businessman.

    Why did you leave Liberia?

  • Siaka Kenny:

    Oh, a lot of reasons. Right now, we are having some economic problems.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    This has been one of the busiest days in Lampedusa for quite some time. And for this island, it's something of an emergency.

    Toto Martello, Lampedusa mayor (through translator): I criticize what is being done both in Italy and in Europe. What mean, is that the phenomenon of emigration is not being confronted by anyone.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Toto Martello is the left-wing mayor of Lampedusa. He is the son of a fisherman. And because of his family ties, Martello has a deep understanding of how, historically, the Mediterranean has facilitated the movement of people.

    But the current wave has left him at the end of his rope.

  • Toto Martello (through translator):

    Europe is exclusively focusing only on refugees. On Lampedusa, most of the arrivals are economic migrants. And, fundamentally, nobody cares about economic migrants.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Hidden away from Lampedusa's tourist beaches is what the European Union calls a hot spot. It is a detention facility with a maximum capacity of 250 people, where migrants are held, while their identities are checked and asylum claims processed.

    It was already full to bursting, and so this weekend's arrivals had nowhere to go. Suited up to protect themselves against COVID, the Coast Guards kept the migrants in the shade as they plotted the next move.

  • Attilio Lucia, La Lega (through translator):

    Africa is arriving in Italy. Look at today. As usual, so many clandestini are landing. I call them clandestini because that's what they are, illegal immigrants who arrive here with no documents. I am very angry when it comes to this reception of migrants.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Attilio Lucia is the Lampedusa representative of La Lega, a powerful anti-immigration party that belongs to Italy's right-wing coalition government.

  • Attilio Lucia (through translator):

    The left does not want to stop these landings, smugglers or the nonprofits. They are criminal accomplices. We are talking here about trafficking human flesh.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Lampedusa's main harbor is littered with hulks of the migrants' navy that reached this side of the Mediterranean. Lampedusa is known as the door of Europe.

    This art installation is an important symbol for Marta Barabino, who represents a Protestant church pro-migrant nonprofit. She has no time for the rhetoric of the right.

    Marta Barabino, Italian Federation of Protestant Churches: In summer months, there are loads of arrivals. But we cannot talk about emergency. The emergency is in Libya and in the middle of the Mediterranean, where people die.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Another nonprofit, Doctors Without Borders, reported that many of the new arrivals had sustained violent injuries in Libya, where many sub-Saharan Africans transit on their way to Europe.

    The Italian authorities also believe people traffickers were hiding among the migrants and have launched an investigation.

    So, what's happening right now is that these people, along with about 150 others, are being taken out to a Coast Guard ship out there. They are being moved off the island and taken to the mainland straight away, because there simply isn't enough room for them here on this island.

    The journey of Siaka Kenny, the Liberian businessman, was proceeding as planned.

  • Siaka Kenny:

    Oh, we got here by boat, 20, 22 persons on the boat.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    What do you think of the way the Italians are treating you?

  • Siaka Kenny:

    Oh, they are very nice, very nice people, very nice people. We eat three times a day. And we are well-treated, yes, very comfortable. Everything's OK, actually.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    So where do you think you are going now?

  • Siaka Kenny:

    So, I'm going to Sicily, Italy. I'm an Italian now. Thank you.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    When it comes to migration, Europe and Italy's current priority is the fallout from Afghanistan.

    This was one of the last Italian flights into Kabul late last week. The planes extracted Italian diplomats, military officials and African citizens. In all, Italy airlifted to safety 4, 800 Africans, including 1, 500 children.

    In Lampedusa, there's recognition that the plight of Africans fleeing the Taliban now takes priority over the island's needs on the front line of European immigration.

  • Toto Martello (through translator):

    We are always being forced to deal with emergencies, be it Syria, Afghanistan or the Arab Spring and so on. If there can't be peace in the world, basically, crises will continue to erupt. And, practically, we have no alternative buy to confront them.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    But right-winger Attilio Lucia takes a less charitable view.

  • Attilio Lucia (through translator):

    We from Lampedusa have been abandoned by Europe. Of course, they will forget about us, because the focus is on Kabul. Whatever happens here, they just don't care about it.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    As Lucia spoke, a flimsy wooden boat carrying more than a dozen Africans limped into Lampedusa's harbor. Its outboard motor survived the long crossing, the door of Europe as wide open as ever.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Lampedusa.

Listen to this Segment