Where the rich meet the poor

Updated: Aug 24 2014, 07:51am hrs
The tragic story of Sikh refugees from Afghanistan trapped inside a steel container on board a ship headed for the UK has focused on just how desperate people have become to escape the conditions in their own countries. Their destination was dictated by the ships course, cargo and landing port, but the most favoured destination for refugees is actually a little-known island in Sicily called Lampedusa. A recent first-person piece on the travel website Roadsandkingdoms says, For those dreaming of working in Europe, the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa was, tragically, part of the answer. The island is geologically part of the African continent, lying in the southern Mediterranean, closer to Tunisia than to Sicily, under which it falls administratively. Apart from tourist-related information, the only time Lampedusa figures in the news is when boatloads of West Asian and African refugees arrive on the island. The writer says in 2013, nearly 43,000 political refugees and economic migrants crossed the Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy, of which 15,000 landed in Lampedusa. Like the Sikhs from Afghanistan, they made the trip in dangerous and cramped conditions, packed so tightly that many were unable to move. The trip could take days, with the result that the refugees had to be treated for dehydration, sunstroke, serious cramps from being unable to move and nausea from sea sickness and the engine fumes.

The author traces the history of the island and discovers that it has been a place of passage since the Greeks and Phoenicians occupied the area. The Romans used it as a base for their excursions into North Africa, a trend that is now reversed. The British used it as base to launch the invasion of Sicily during World War II and, today, they invade the island for tourism. For refugees from North Africa, it is the closest port located in Europe. Many migrants arrive by boat from Libya, though not all make it to the island. One ship carrying asylum seekers caught fire and sank before it could reach the island. Few on board knew how to swim. Rescuers from the island saved 156 people. They also recovered 368 bodies, including some from an earlier shipwreck that had been floating in the Mediterranean for months. The International Organization for Migration estimates that 20,000 have drowned over the past 20 years. In 2013, the death toll was roughly 700, but estimates are that as many died anonymously. In 2011, when revolutions in Tunisia and Libya sparked an exodus into Italy, about 2,300 people died trying to make the crossing. For those who make it to Lampedusa, the processing of asylum seekers takes time and many of the refugees are moved inland, but even today, as the author describes, refugees from North Africa can be found on the island, rubbing shoulders with affluent tourists from England.