A sunny Italian isle in the Mediterranean with beautiful beaches and sparkling seas, Lampedusa sounds like an ideal holiday destination – but tourists are staying away. Police have become a constant presence, sent to deal with the huge number of migrants arriving on the island, and for some locals the uniforms evoke uncomfortable memories.
The mottled brown dog paws the heavy wire gates of the reception centre and whines to be let in, rubbing his mangy head on the mesh to try to attract the guard’s attention. The young officer grins as he opens the door;
“You just can’t get enough of these guys can you?” he says fondly as the stray dog makes a beeline for the lunch queue and trots expectantly towards a group of migrants who are spooning pasta from plastic pots.
The rest of Lampedusa, particularly those who are engaged in the tourist trade, don’t share the dog’s unconditional adoration of the migrants. At the island’s port, Giorgio is turning over the engine of his small boat, Giorgio, a skipper, tells me he rarely gets the chance these days to take tourists out on the open sea – he’s got no clients.
It’s hardly a selling point, he says, to boast that Lampedusa is a migrant hotspot – it doesn’t exactly give off that festive holiday buzz. I protest that the island has some of the best beaches in the world, that its climate, even in these winter months is mild and comforting and that the surrounding cobalt-blue sea is full of dolphins, turtles and carnival coloured fish. He gives me a withering smile.
“Yes mate,” he agrees. “But so is Sardinia. That’s why skippers there are happily fleecing tourists every day, while I sit idle here in the port.”
His girlfriend, Angela, hands him a cloth to wipe the salt off the boat’s windows.
“I used to work eight months of the year as a hotel receptionist,” she complains. “Now I’m lucky to get three months work a year – the guests just aren’t coming anymore, even in summer.”
In the main shopping street, a sparse handful of German tourists flick through glossy guide books and untidy piles of marked-down, turtle embossed T-shirts at the souvenir shop.
A solitary birdwatcher, with a jumble of binoculars and cameras hanging from his neck, sits on the church steps mopping at a sticky trail of ice cream on his fleece as he gawps at the cafe opposite. But the cafe, far from being deserted, is stuffed with customers, each one clamouring loudly over the thumping pop music, for his mid-morning cappuccino. But it’s not the frenetic activity that’s caught our birdwatcher’s eye – it’s the fact that that every one of the customers in the cafe is in police uniform.
On the other side of the island, looking out over a beautiful cove, Angela’s old boss Andrea is chain-smoking cigarettes with an air of desperation. He’s just put down the phone on a potential visitor who told him he’d like to book for next spring, but his wife is a bit concerned they might bump into a corpse when they go swimming.
Andrea says that last year he was 50% down on bookings, but curiously he doesn’t blame the migrants. He says it’s the way they’re managed.
“Welcome to Lampedusa police state!” he says sarcastically as we hear a siren wail on the coastal road.
“This whole island has become militarised – you can’t go anywhere without seeing burly blokes in uniforms with truncheons, guns and bullet-proof vests. It’s hardly a welcome is it?”
There was a time, I remind him, when migrants outnumbered the islanders. They set up dirty, wild camps in the scrubland overlooking the port, and were constantly seen in bedraggled groups in the town in full view of the tourists – now they’re kept inside the reception centre while they’re processed and are quickly moved on to Sicily. “Isn’t that better,” I ask, “in terms of visitor appeal?” Andrea takes a long drag on his cigarette.
“Those poor refugees are locked in as if they’re in a concentration camp,” he says quietly. “And what that says to tourists is, ‘Welcome back to fascism’.”
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I tell him that I’ve been chatting with Lampedusa’s exhausted-looking mayor who’s assured me that tourism on the island is undergoing a renaissance, welcoming a new kind of socially-aware visitor who feels solidarity with the migrant’s plight.
Andrea nods thoughtfully. “She’s right,” he says. “But unfortunately our new visitors are generally young and broke – they’ve no money for a nice hotel or dinner.”
He won’t answer my question about what happens to his business if tourism doesn’t pick up. Giorgio the skipper, though, is already talking about going to look for work further north, just like the migrants.
Inside the reception centre, the brown dog chews contentedly on a sock he’s stolen from an asylum seeker. He rolls onto his back in the dust. Tonight these migrants may all be shipped off, but tomorrow, or perhaps the day after, he knows there’ll be more of them, so his future at least is certain.
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