LAMPEDUSA, Italy — This tiny, picturesque speck in the Mediterranean Sea has become the front-line of the growing humanitarian crisis in Europe. It is where thousands of migrants fleeing chaos in Africa and the Middle East are making the harrowing journey by boat to European soil — or drowning en route — because this is their closest destination. The once-sleepy island is closer toTunisia than to Sicily.
The mass influx of refugees has divided the town’s 6,000 residents, sometimes within the same family, over whether the island has a duty to help the desperate newcomers or should turn away the arrivals because they have scared off many of the tourists who provide the island’s livelihood.
“Go home! Go! Go! Go!” local youths shouted from a passing car at a half-dozen African refugees gathered on Via Roma, the town’s main drag. The Africans don’t speak Italian, but they said they understood the sentiment.
“Why wouldn’t they be mad? They don’t know us,” said Ahmed Ali, 19, a Somali who arrived in Lampedusa a few days earlier. “But what are we supposed to do? I could not stay in Somalia. I would die if I stayed. But for me this is just another stop along the way.”
“This is where they bring us,” added fellow Somali Hassan Musa-Said, 18, another of the young migrants. “I am thankful to be safe on land here. But I want to move on as soon as they will let me.”
The island is in the spotlight again in the wake of another disaster at sea, where hundreds of migrants are feared dead after their boat capsized off the coast of Libyathis past weekend.