By Gonzalo Sanchez
Lampedusa, Italy, Apr 27 (EFE).- Even though it is not summer yet, tourists have started huddling over the magical beaches of the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Many see Lampedusa as a vacation spot but for thousands of migrants embarking on deadly journeys across the Mediterranean, it is a “Gateway to Europe.”
Lampedusa is a tiny Italian island in the Pelagie archipelago located several miles off the Tunisian coast with 6,000 inhabitants living off fishing and tourism.
Elderly people in Lampedusa recall how the island lived in peace until the first boat with some 71 Tunisians on board appeared on the horizon in 1992, marking the beginning of a period that has gotten worse after the fall of Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Since then, the island has struggled with influxes of migrant and frequent tragedies such as the 2013 shipwreck, in which 368 people died.
Almost 4,000 migrants, mainly from Tunisia, arrived in Lampedusa this week, overcrowding the island’s Contrada Imbriacola reception center which has a capacity of 400.
After arriving, migrants disembark in a restricted access area at the port before they are transferred to the center.
The rescued, including hundreds of children, spend days crammed on dirty mattresses until Italian authorities discreetly transport them in large boats to Sicily at night.
While aware of the ongoing “drama”, people in Lampedusa live calmly.
But the large police presence and the hustle and bustle at the small town hall, where the new mayor, Filippo Mannino, is scrambling to find a place to bury the bodies of two women that washed ashore this week, are what make the state of emergency obvious.
“We don’t see them because they arrive by boat and are taken directly into the center,” Guiseppe, a fisherman who now sells handicrafts, tells Efe.
“It does not affect tourism at all,” his neighbor Antonia says.
With its beautiful turquoise waters, Lampedusa attracts many tourists in the summer but some were encouraged to visit in April thanks to the warm, sunny weather.
“Migrants do not wander down the street, they do not affect tourism, which continues to grow,” says Giuseppe Palmieri, who runs a tourist agency his father founded on June 12, 1968.
Half a century later, “tourism has become the main economic force on the island, replacing fishing,” he adds.
But what all those in Lampedusa share is the cemetery. The stillness of the graveyard replete with tombstones is only interrupted by the steady hum of an adjacent power station.
Some migrants have been buried there under nameless tombs, reading “Here lies an unidentified migrant.”
More than 17,000 people, including 2,836 in the first nine months of 2022, have disappeared at the sea since 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).EFE