LAMPEDUSA, Italy (OSV News) — In front of the Church of St. Gerland on the Italian island of Lampedusa, dozens of migrants lined up Sept. 14 in a neat row, one after the other. The queue was long as they waited patiently.
The crossing of the sea abyss — across the Mediterranean from Tunisia — was already just a terrifying memory and they knew that there was enough food for everyone. More than 130 Red Cross employees and volunteers were working day and night to provide migrants not only with sanitary assistance, but also with a warm meal.
They prepared 5,000 portions at noon and a similar amount for dinner. From Sept. 12 to Sept. 13, 7,000 migrants reached Lampedusa, an Italian island once visited by Pope Francis as his first apostolic trip destination in July 2013. On Sept. 13, authorities said a record number of 120 fragile boats arrived on the island within 24 hours.
So far in 2023, nearly 126,000 migrants have arrived in Italy, almost double the figure by the same time in 2022. Those desperately trying to reach Europe came mainly from Africa’s Guinea, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, but also from Bangladesh and Pakistan.
“If you count all of us here on the island we are just 5,000 inhabitants,” former Mayor Totò Martello told journalists, when, together with other people of goodwill, he rolled up his sleeves and offered the outstretched hand of another refugee a plate of pasta al pomodoro.
“There haven’t been that many people here ever before probably,” 80-year-old Salvatore, who only gave his first name, told OSV News as he leaned on his bike in the shade on the opposite side of the church square and watched the endless queue. He looked with concern but also with peace, because, as he said, “at least there is a relative order here close to the church.”
A few hundred meters away, in the port of Favaloro, the situation was a lot more tense as more and more boats and pontoons arrived constantly to the “gate of Europe,” mainly from sub-Saharan African countries.
Preparing for his Sept. 22 trip to Marseille, France, an apostolic journey focused on migration, Pope Francis referred to the scenes in Lampedusa during the Sept. 17 Angelus prayer, saying that migration “represents a challenge that is not easy, as we also see from the news in recent days, but which must be faced together, since it is essential for the future of all, which will be prosperous only if it is built on fraternity, putting human dignity and real people, especially those most in need, in first place.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited the Italian island on the same day, promising a 10-point European Union action plan to help Italy deal with the situation.
On Sept. 14, crowded and exhausted, they stood on the pier waiting for transport to the “hotspot,” the area where migrants were gathering. It was cordoned off by officers with the state police — Polizia di Stato — who tried to control the chaos. Some migrants started scuffles with police, others threw themselves into the sea in desperation and they had to be rescued again.
Francesca Matina, a native resident of Lampedusa, saw a small boat lose its balance and hit a rock the previous day. Without hesitation, she and her friend Gonzalo jumped into the water and saved four drowning migrants.
She didn’t want to be called a hero. “It’s part of our nature to welcome them,” she said.
“We, people of Lampedusa, have it in our blood, but today I feel very angry. We cannot treat these people this way, crammed into Guardia Costiera (Coast Guard) boats, dehydrated, exhausted. The truth is that we are quite alone in this situation. Europe has left us alone,” she told OSV News.
Since Sept. 12, the situation on this tiny island has been dramatic, the local authorities have introduced a state of emergency and said the next meeting of the European Council needs to be held in Lampedusa, at the gates of Europe, and not in the corridors of Brussels.
“Only here can you understand the tragedy that is unfolding before your eyes and at the same time in the silence of the whole world,” said Vincenzo Riso, a fisherman born on the island.
Italian Rai state television reported that on Sept. 13 the Italian coast guard tried to assist one boat and the smugglers’ vessel tipped over. A mother from Guinea with her 5-month-old baby fell into the sea — the woman was rescued, in shock, but the baby died, Rai said.
“I go fishing every night, I’ve always been there, my dad had a fishing boat. It’s a tragedy every time … because not all of those who sail from Africa here reach the shore,” Riso told OSV News.
The fisherman then looked silently toward the open sea, pointing to the port behind his back and took a deep breath.
“Tonight, again, like every day, while casting our nets in the dark, we came across a dozen sunken boats, the ones in which migrants tried to get to the island and failed,” he said.
“This is a great human tragedy … and when we fish by spawning, we collect everything from the bottom of the sea … many times not only fish,” he said, not willing to finish the sentence.
The hotspot in Lampedusa has been bursting at the seams for several days. On Sept. 14 there were 6,762 people there for fewer than 600 places.
Most migrants arrive in Lampedusa via the so-called Tunisian route. This is the closest piece of African land from the Italian island, only 100 miles away, in good weather it takes just eight to 10 hours of drifting across the water.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni accompanied von der Leyen on Lampedusa Sept. 17, as their car was briefly blocked by locals protesting the burden facing the island, Reuters reported.
“We’re working on it … we are doing our best,” Meloni told the protesters.
Among the volunteers next to the St. Gerland Church stood Father Carmelo Rizzo, or Don Carmelo, the parish priest, who supported the others as much as he could.
“Everyone who was born here has a big heart and welcomes these exhausted newcomers with what they have at home,” moved by “this apocalypse,” he said as he described the current situation.
Oct. 3 will mark the 10th anniversary of the death of 368 migrants off the coast of Lampedusa when a fire broke out on board of the overloaded cutter. Ten years later, the inhabitants have not lost the will to help those in need, but more and more, are losing patience that the small community must shoulder rescuing tens of thousands on their own.
“In these last days, we are helping migrants not with humanitarian aid, but with our small home resources: someone will give shoes, someone a shirt, someone else will prepare a pot of food,” Don Carmelo said.
The Vatican will observe World Day of Migrants and Refugees Sept. 24.
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Magdalena Wolinska-Riedi writes for OSV News from Rome.