Italy’s far right turns Lampedusa’s refugee crisis to its advantage

A few days after the downfall of Italy’s government, Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League party, began preparing his electoral campaign for upcoming national elections the only way he knows: by targeting refugees.

First he started a series of posts on Twitter featuring news of crimes and rapes allegedly attributed to what he described as “fake refugees”. Then, last week, Salvini, a former interior minister who made high-profile moves to block the arrival of asylum seekers at Italian ports, arrived in Lampedusa.

This tiny island in the central Mediterranean has recently received a wave of refugee boat landings that has stretched the capacity of its reception centre. “Italy is not the refugee camp of Europe,” he said during his visit. “This is shameful. But Italians will soon vote and can turn a page.”

As political rallies fire up, the message is patently clear: the refugee crisis is back and so is the far right, eager to capitalise on it.

Arrivals of asylum seekers from Africa are destined to play a defining role in Italian elections on 25 September. A coalition led by Brothers of Italy, a descendant of the neofascist Italian Social Movement (MSI), Salvini’s far-right League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia is tipped to win. The coalition’s candidate for PM is Brothers of Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, who could become the country’s first far-right leader since Mussolini and who once said Italians needed to “repatriate the migrants back to their countries and then sink the boats that rescued them”.

Surprisingly, in Lampedusa, once famed for its welcoming of migrants, the far right’s move seems to be working. In the 2019 EU elections, the League won nearly 46% of votes. Last June, the residents, who have accused Italy’s authorities of abandoning them, elected a League deputy mayor.

For an idea of how the island, a 2016 candidate for the Nobel peace prize for its solidarity toward asylum seekers, became a stronghold of anti-immigration politics, one need only visit the local reception centre.

In the August heat, hundreds of sub-Saharan and north African asylum seekers lie breathless on mattresses in the shade of a pine tree because there’s no room inside. As thousands of tourists enjoy the island’s beaches, Nigerian and Senegalese children as young as two have been waiting for days amid the rubbish of the reception centre to be transferred to the mainland. The facility can handle 380 people, but in recent weeks has struggled.

“Since the beginning of the year, the island has taken in about 20,000 people,” says Giovanni D’Ambrosio, social worker in Lampedusa for Mediterranean Hope, a project conceived by the Federation of Evangelical Churches that provides support to refugees. “On 25 July thirty-one boats arrived in one day, and on 30 July, 1,050 people came ashore. But it’s not the first time that Lampedusa has been forced to deal with such an intense period of arrivals.’’

In 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis, more than 21,000 asylum seekers landed in Lampedusa. The island, known for its crystalline waters, was already the main port of arrival for migrants, and a tragic theatre for deaths at sea.

Two years before, on 3 October 2013, a few miles off of Lampedusa, a fishing boat carrying 440 asylum seekers from Eritrea and Somalia capsized after a fire broke out. At least 368 people died. Pictures of hundreds of coffins in rows in a hangar on the island went around the world. It was the most dramatic shipwreck up to that time. Unfortunately, more would follow, with local fishermen diving into the water to save people.

As Hungary, Greece and Croatia enacted draconian measures to impede the movement of asylum seekers, film directors, actors, prime ministers and even the pope began to pay regular visits to Lampedusa to see Europe’s compassionate side.

“Lampedusa had become a global example of reception,” Giusi Nicolini, mayor of Lampedusa from 2012 to 2017, told the Observer. Nicolini received the Unesco’s Félix Houphouët-Boigny peace prize for the “great humanity and constant commitment” with which she managed the crisis. “Migrants were free to walk on the island without any problem. Rescue operations were led by Mare Nostrum, a military intervention for humanitarian ends launched by Italian authorities intended to prevent tragedies. Asylum seekers were rescued at sea and transferred safely to Italy before being moved on to destinations across Europe. It all worked rather well.”

It didn’t last. The far right portrayed the arrival of people seeking asylum as an “invasion”. Mare Nostrum was eventually superseded by Operation Triton, which was intended to patrol the Mediterranean more than save lives. In an attempt to stem the flow, Italy struck a deal with the Libyan coastguard that allowed it to return asylum seekers to a country where they suffer torture and abuse.


Lampedusa, which has an area of just under 8 square miles, lacks the resources to manage thousands of arrivals over the long term. The island has no maternity facility at its hospital: pregnant women are forced to travel to Sicily a month before their due date. Inhabitants are also struggling with a lack of drinkable water, an unreliable waste management system and a shortage of jobs.

“I have six kids,” says Domenico Cucina, 75, a fisher in Lampedusa. “Three were born here, without any health assistance. It was a gamble. I have a heart problem. To reach the mainland by helicopter it takes hours. The streets are falling apart, and we don’t have basic services. Lampedusa is not in a position to manage the arrival of these people.”

Residents’ disappointment turns into frustration, and then into rage, which bolsters support for the extreme right.

Last June, Attilio Lucia, a young activist and member of the League, famous for his live Facebook broadcasts from the island’s seaport in which he opposes the arrivals, was elected deputy mayor of Lampedusa. “We have to end the arrivals immediately and help these people in their countries,” Lucia told the Observer. “The EU has to think about the people of Lampedusa who have been putting up with these arrivals for 30 years. We’re tired.”

A few years ago, residents erected a monument in Piazza Piave to remember those who died in the October 2013 shipwreck. It is one of the few monuments dedicated to migrants still standing. The others have been vandalised or destroyed.

In 2020, the “migrant boats graveyard”, a key symbol of the migration crisis, with its hundreds of dilapidated boats left behind over the years by asylum seekers, was set on fire in what was described as a politically motivated attack. Three days before, the Gateway to Europe (Porta d’Europa) monument, designed by artist Mimmo Paladino in 2008 as a memorial to migrants who died attempting the crossing, was wrapped by vandals in plastic bags.

Over the years, the fragile metal fence surrounding the reception centre was reinforced with a deep ditch and then a high wall: a nearly parallel evolution with the repressive EU laws preventing the arrival of refugees at its borders. Today, the migrant facility in Lampedusa resembles Guantánamo Bay, with dozens of surveillance cameras and sentry boxes.

“Only a minority of these people are escaping war,” Salvini said during his visit to the reception centre before relaxing in Berlusconi’s luxurious villa in Lampedusa. “We have to get back to protecting Italy. In July alone more immigrants arrived than in 2019. We cannot open Italy’s doors to thousands of illegal migrants.”

Almost 20,000 people have died or gone missing since 2014 in the central Mediterranean, the most lethal and unsafe passage to Europe and one of the deadliest borders in the world. Hundreds of bodies recovered at sea have not been identified.

“It’s not Salvini that upsets me,” said Nicolini. “It’s the parties that were supposed to resist Salvini that enrage me. The left contributed to the introduction of repressive migrant policies. And this is Lampedusa today: the failure of repressive measures in a Europe that pretends to not understand that after all these years nothing will stop people from coming here.”