A tiny Italian island has found itself at the forefront of the exodus of people from the unrest in Tunisia, and it's causing renewed friction over Italy's immigration policy.
Sunday, March 13, 2011 - 20:30

Lampedusa is closer to the African coast than to mainland Italy and has recently seen its population of 5,000 Italians double, as refugees pour in from north Africa.

They tell reporter Zoé de Bussière that risking their lives to escape on packed boats is better than staying amidst the upheaval in Tunisia.

While many are being moved to the Italian mainland to be processed, the Italians on Lampedusa say their island is being overwhelmed, and their reputation as a tourist destination is in jeopardy.

See Zoé's report above, from a special edition of Dateline presented from Italy by Yalda Hakim.

Dateline's Amos Roberts also reported on Africans trying to reach Lampedusa in July 2009, amid widespread hostility towards immigrants in Italy. Click to replay The Italian Solution.

Photo (boat): Getty

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There are few people who wouldn't support the remarkable push for democracy underway in the Arab world. But spare a thought for the residents of Lampedusa, it's a tiny slice of Italy in the Mediterranean, currently struggling to cope with thousands of boat people fleeing the upheaval in Tunisia, Zoe de Bussierre has this story.

REPORTER: Zoé de Bussière


Just off the coast of Italy a boat carries Tunisia's children of the revolution. Two weeks ago these people began their epic new journey from the wrenching birth of a new democracy North Africa to the lure of Europe's Old World.

MAN (Translation): All those people are going to find a job, some want a BMW, some want a Mercedes.

In the sky a sign that their journey is about to end - the same scene plays out 20 times a day. Small boats from Tunisia are boarded by the coastguard and guided to this rocky Island in the Mediterranean Sea - a tiny chunk of Italy.

Lampedusa is an outpost of Europe, only 115km from the coast of Tunisia, it's 20 square kilometres of rock is home to 5,000 Italians, and another 5,000 North African boat people who landed in the last few days. Amongst them Radhouane and his friends. They show me the old fishing boats that carried them here.

RADHOUANE (Translation): It's small.

MAN (Translation): It is, did you sail on it? I would never have done that.

RADHOUANE (Translation): This is the boat my cousin came on.

MAN (Translation): I really don't know how you came on such an old boat.

RADHOUANE (Translation): I was there and the water was up to here - the boat was so full. Every time it moved or someone stood up the water would come in and I was completely soaked, I swear.

MAN (Translation): I would never have done what you did.

RADHOUANE (Translation): We were scared, we took a lot of risks, but it is better than hanging out in cafes.

Radhouane will never see democracy blossom in his own land, like those who fled with him from Africa, he took advantage of Tunisia's upheaval to make a run for a better life in Europe.

RADHOUANE (Translation): Everybody was waiting for this moment to come here, we only came here to find a job - we are looking for a job, we want to work, nothing else.

MAN (Translation): There is no hope for you, you have got rid of Ben Ali now, there's little hope of staying here.

RADHOUANE (Translation): No my friend, it'll take time - at least four or five years before the tourists come back, it's very hard, there's no work.

But Lampedusa is struggling to cope with this sudden migrant influx, 300 police have been sent from the mainland, and an emergency centre which has been closed for the past two years has had to reopen. Even that is not enough to shelter the new arrivals, Lampedusa had to open new places.

Every night migrants queue here for a small portion of food and a bed for the night. Usually, though, when people are lining up in this building, it's to see an exhibition. They are standing in the museum of Lampedusa.

CONO (Translation): I'll sit with you, how are you going? They need help and it is only fair to help them. If we had a war here in Italy, we would go to them for help. Now they have asked for our help because there's a war

Cono works for the municipality, and asked the Mayor to open the gates of the museum to house the growing number of illegals, Cono even spends his evenings with the Tunisians, soothing them with music.

CONO (Translation): Yes, I'm everybody's friend here, he is a great friend of mine - he even understands Italian.

But many of the young Tunisians here are keen to venture into the night. Some leave the museum looking for ways to celebrate their arrival here. Close to an abandoned house they share their first European meal, Italian pasta with a Tunisian sauce. Bilal and his friends all grew up in the same village in south eastern Tunisia, they seek comfort in being here together.

MAN (Translation): How many nights have you spent here?

BILAL (Translation): Eight, we want to leave but there are too many of us, we have to be patient, what can we do? We have to wait two or three days before we can leave with a pass. That will be a nice memory; cooking spaghetti in Lampedusa. Thank God - may it be the last time.

The atmosphere might be friendly for now, but these groups of Tunisians are starting to annoy the islanders. Maria Rosaria has been living here for three years, she moved here because she found it peaceful and safe. She no longer sees the island that way.

MARIA ROSARIA (Translation): Life on the island has been very different in the last week, just look at what is happening in this square, usually here it is almost empty - about 6000 people live on the island. Most of us are families, we all know each other and we are very safe - we can leave the keys in the door, in the car - so this situation is complicating our daily life.

And the tension is rising. Day after day there are more arrivals, a huge increase in the population of North African men.

MARIA ROSARIA (Translation): Look at the situation at the bar, it's not prejudice or anything, it's just that I am scared to stop and have a coffee, I mean, there are only Tunisians! Yes there are others but we are being outnumbered, so; they are starting to bother us. They make jokes - they feel they belong here even though they only arrived about a week ago. So they start to say hello, in a very intrusive way, when you are a girl, it can be annoying.

Now Maria Rosaria doesn't ride her bicycle any more, she says she's too afraid that she'll meet Tunisians on her way in the countryside. There's no evidence that any of the boat people have committed serious crimes here but at a meeting with Lampedusa's mayor, locals are clearly afraid.

LOCAL (Translation): Excuse me for interrupting, we are talking about our children's safety, if something happens to a child, have we asked ourselves the question - who is going to pay? Who should we blame? I want to know who I should blame. Because they have no names, no surnames, nothing!

COUNCILOR (Translation): Why has the minister's attitude changed, until yesterday we were pushing back the migrants and sending them back and now we have opened the doors to let everybody in. As long as the dictator, Ben Ali was in power, we had a bilateral agreement between Italy and Tunisia but now the Tunisian government does not respect this agreement.

LOCAL (Translation): Today Lampedusa is a human garbage can!

A man tries to calm the crowd, although he is also worried by the growing number of Tunisians.

SALVATORE CAPPELLO (Translation): Excuse me, Mayor, I would like to say something, this habit of taking food to them at the museum - I think it is wrong. If the emergency centre is open, they should go and eat there. Why should we feed them elsewhere?

An hour and a half later he leaves the meeting, his questions remain unanswered.

SALVATORE CAPPELLO (Translation): We feel neglected by the state, this phenomenon has to stop, this emergency in Lapedusa - there was no state answer!

He's worried because the massive migration directly threatens his livelihood here. Like many in Lampedusa, Salvatore runs a tourism business, and says reservations for the coming season are already being cancelled.

SALVATORE CAPPELLO (Translation): The tourism industry is in danger right now so the state must give us definite answers on what they want to do in Lampedusa.

To ease the crowds the Italian Government is moving dozens of boat people every day to bigger shelters on the mainland. This morning Bilal comes to farewell the latest group to be moved away, amongst them, one of his friends from the village. This group considers itself lucky to be sent to Italy's mainland, rather than back to Tunisia, but their future isn't certain. For Bilal, life for every Tunisian here, Lampedusa is just the first step on a journey to Europe, to a new life and a new beginning.

BILAL (Translation): We are young, we want to build our future, I have many dreams I want to fulfil - raise a family, get a house, a job;.That is what I want - nothing more. I don't want to be rich - I want a nice life with my family.



Zoé de BussiÈre



Régis Croizer

Emanuele Marzari


Eric Chevalier

Nicolas Baudry d'Asson


Donna tieri

joseph abdo

odile blandeau

13th March 2011