The collective flotsam of wars and upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa is washing up on an unlikely place, the 8-mile-long Mediterranean island of Lampedusa.
TripAdvisor named Lampedusa a Travelers’ Choice 2013 winner. It says the island is “treasured by visitors for its fine white sandy beaches, its clear turquoise waters and its excellent scuba diving.” Geographically closest to Tunisia and North Africa, it’s nonetheless part of Italy, whose mainland is another 109-mile boat ride away.
Lampedusa hit the headlines in early October, when an overloaded boat carrying mostly Eritreans capsized 800 yards from shore. Of 500 refugees onboard, 364 died. The capsizing and the tragedies are continuing as steadily as the turquoise waves wash Lampedusa’s fine white sandy beaches.
Sea migrations picked up in 2011 during Libya’s civil war, with hundreds and hundreds suddenly arriving by boatloads—first Libyans, then Chadians, Eritreans, Ghanaians, Nigerians. They have only increased: 15,000 migrants arrived in 2012 and so far in 2013 over 32,000 have reached Lampedusa.
In recent weeks more Syrians are arriving by boatloads, as 2 million Syrians forced from their own country—and surrounded by unstable neighbors—are becoming increasingly desperate for a haven. On Oct. 11 another capsized boat near Lampedusa left about 34 refugees dead, mostly Syrians. Overnight on Oct. 25 Italian coast guard officers rescued nearly 700 Syrian and African refugees headed to Lampedusa aboard four boats.
If you want to look at sheer numbers to quantify the region’s tumble into anarchy, violence, and terrorism, then look to Jordan or Lebanon (see our report on "Outside the camps"). In Lampedusa you will see something else: how desperate is the will of refugees yearning to breathe free.
They come with next to nothing. Most have only the clothes they are wearing, a cotton scarf draped over their heads to shield the sun, and a plastic grocery bag of belongings, small enough to sit on during the voyage.
Lampedusa has no signpost to welcome, no Colossus to father them home, no Lady Liberty, that mother of exiles. Its strip of land is an emblem for the barest sliver of hope. Its arrivals are mostly starved, unemployed, homeless, penniless, wounded, and orphaned. Lampedusa, simply, is the handiest gateway to Europe, and EU asylum.
Some make it only to find safety elusive. In mid-October about 200 Syrians who landed at Lampedusa were living hundreds of miles north in Milan’s train station. One woman said she gave birth aboard the boat to the island. Another, aged 29, is living in the train station with 10- and 12-year-old daughters and her 35-year-old husband. He owned a construction business in Homs, a battleground city between rebels and Syrian forces. She told Agence France-Presse, “We left Homs five months ago. We passed through Jordan, Egypt, and Libya where we lived for three months. We arrived on Lampedusa on Oct. 3”—the same day 364 asylum seekers on a different boat drowned.
“We live without hope as the days go past,” said another refugee. “We want to be settled in any country where we can be safe … so that we don’t have to use the sea.”
The United States has agreed to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees—or 0.5 percent of its present asylum seekers. We have two lines of heritage I believe call us to do more. First, the Bible is a history of sojourn, of God’s people cast out and then taken in through the mercy of the Almighty. “You who once were far off have been brought near …” Second, Americans approaching a time of Thanksgiving can remember the account of that first crossing, of all our beginnings in the New World, from William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Colony:
Being now passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before them in expectations, they had now no friends to welcome them, no inns to entertain or refresh them … what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wilde beasts and wilde men?
Sheltering homeless war victims isn’t a missile strike, but it could signify strategic engagement of a higher order.