Immigration is a hot topic in most developed countries. Apparently the Latino element in the USA turned out to vote for Obama in record numbers and are now asking for immigration policy reforms, to legitimise their not-so-legal relatives as formally recognised US residents. Olé!
These people are mainly economic migrants, though. In Sicily, we get Africans fleeing for their lives. Sicily is exactly half way between Europe and Africa, so we are in the front line.
I went through the immigration process in Italy myself when I moved here eight years ago. I tried, in those early, naïve days, to point out to anyone who would listen that there is such a thing as the European Union and that I should have the automatic right to live in Italy just because I wanted to. That’s how it works for EU citizens entering the UK.
In return a uniformed, armed policeman at the immigration office informed me that being a European citizen merely gave me the automatic right to queue hop. He withdrew his weapon, and forced me to barge straight to the front of a long line of despondent and disappointed Africans, east Europeans and assorted Asians who looked as if they had already been waiting in this dismal immigration office, lined with peeling grey paint and posters of people being deported, for about five years. I was eaten up with guilt when I saw the sadness on their faces as they realised they would have to wait even longer, probably only to receive further disappointment anyway.
“Are you sure England’s in the European Union?” the policeman suddenly asked me after elbowing a Moroccan out of the way and physically manhandling me into the service booth in his place.
“Definitely,” I said. “We joined before Italy, actually.”
“But you don’t have the Euro,” he objected.
“And a good thing too, don’t you think?” I answered.
The policeman liked my comment so much he leaned into the booth and told the official to make sure my case was passed without any setbacks or faffing around.
“And don’t overdo the stapling either,” he added. “She’s English, so don’t waste her time.”
Italian officials love to string things out, so they not only keep foreign people waiting for inordinate amounts of time while they photocopy, rubber stamp and staple reams of paper, but they also send them on wild goose chases to obtain other documents from other public offices, despite knowing that the applicant will only be refused any immigration status at the end of the whole procedure anyway. This creates more public sector jobs for their friends and relatives. The Lord helps those who help themselves.
The Immigration Official glared over my shoulder at the Moroccan, who had tried to retake his rightful place at the head of the queue and was frogmarched away. He told me there were only three ways he could give me a ‘Permesso di Soggiorno’, or Permission of Stay Certificate. Either I had to be very rich, or I had to have a job in Sicily, or I had to marry a Sicilian.
“Exactly how rich?” I asked.
“Stinking,” would be a loose translation of his answer.
“Go on, try me. Give me a number,” I challenged him.
I had just sold my house in London so, as it turned out, I was that stinking rich. Both Hubby and the Immigration Official said declaring this level of wealth would be a terrible idea, because the government would spend the rest of my life trying to get every penny off me in the form of taxes I had never heard of. I went to that office about three times, to a couple of other ones a handful of times, and after a mere 4 months, I was legal.
What about the treatment of immigrants who come here not because they want to marry an Italian, but because they don’t want to die?
During the humanitarian crisis of the Libyan war, when Colonel Ghadaffi decided to kill all the sub-Saharan residents of Libya by using soldiers to physically propel them into the sea, Sicilian fishermen used to find groups of people swimming in the sea when they went out fishing at night.
What would you do if you were in a boat and saw the sea frothing with the waving arms of people struggling for their lives? Wouldn’t you pull them aboard and take them ashore?
That would mean you just assisted illegal immigrants in entering the country. That’s a crime.
And what if one of them was a pregnant woman who went into labour right in front of you on the beach? What you’re supposed to do is call the police, who will arrest these people and take them to a detention centre where they will sleep in a dormitory with about 100 other people until they can be deported back to Africa as soon as possible. Except you know that the detention centre is already housing three times the number of people it was built for, so they will actually end up sleeping on the ground out of doors, and there are not enough blankets or clothes for them and there is also not enough drinking water.
Would you take that pregnant woman home to your wife instead, so she could give birth in safety? Then you’d be a criminal.
This is what happened to an Ethiopian refugee from Libya called Timnit. She was raped by prison guards when she was illegally detained in Libya, and she gave birth to her baby in a fisherman’s house on the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa.
Lampedusa has a population of 2,000 and their only source of income is tourism, which lasts two months in the summer. During these two months in 2011, 5,000 African refugees turned up from Libya. Every single one of them was fleeing for his or her life. Many of them died and their bodies still lie at the bottom of the sea.
The rest of Europe complains that Italy is a total pushover when it comes to illegal immigrants, or Clandestini, “The secret Ones” as they are more gently called in Italian. There are of course no border controls between countries of the European Union so, once one country has let immigrants or refugees in, they can go anywhere.
The Lampedusans pulled drowning Africans out of the sea whenever they could. They took blankets and every item of clothing they could spare, to give to the refugees. Almost no tourists went to Lampdeusa that year, which meant they lost their entire annual income.
The French decided to break EU law by closing their borders to trains from Italy. They sought and won EU approval for this. Then Berlusconi was attacked in Europe for his total lack of control or restriction over illegal immigration into the EU.
At this point Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front, took it upon herself to visit Lampedua personally and tell the Lampedusans they must stop letting Africans into Europe. The Lampedusans declared in advance on TV that they would be polite to her, as they are to all visitors to their island, but if she dared say anything racist or offensive they would reply to her in no uncertain terms.
Meanwhile the Lampedusans were running out of water. Refugees were sleeping on the beaches because there was physically no more space to cram any more of them into the detention centres. They were turning the beaches into mass open toilets because there was no more water to operate the sewage system, and no water for them to wash. Those who could get out of the detention centres did so, because the smell of excrement was intolerable. On 27 March 2011, a total of 1,227 new refugees arrived in the space of 24 hours.
This was the point when the Lampedusans complained. Why wouldn’t the other European countries take more refugees? As many as possible had already been shipped to
Sicily and to the Italian mainland but the detention centres there were already filled three times over. If the other countries could spare planes and bombs to fight Ghadaffi’s soldiers, why couldn’t they save a few lives? Surely ALL countries had an equal moral responsibility to take some of them?
And what about America? That’s what I say. Europe already has twelve times the population density of the United states. If you want to know what that means, transport the entire population of the USA, all the cities and all the people, into Oklahoma. Once all of them are living there, that’s what it’s like in Europe. How on earth, I mean, HOW ON EARTH, can Americans claim they don’t have room for more refugees? How can they possibly complain about immigration? And please, don’t tell me there’s a money problem. America is richer than any European country. It’s the richest country in the world.
The Lampedusans were told they would receive no help at all, and the refugees were not welcome in the rest of Europe or the rest of the world. Italy must send them back.
This was the breaking point for the Lampedusans. When you have no clean water, and the fish you need to live on over the winter are dying because the sea has turned into a sewer, you have no choice, do you? So they went down to the harbour and, when the next boat full of African refugees tried to pull into port, they stood there shouting “Please go away! We have no room for you here! You have to go somewhere else!”
And the boat sailed away.
A film called Terraferma was made in 2012 about Timnit and the other refugees who came to Sicily that year. Timnit herself acts in the film. The DVD with English subtitle is available from Amazon. I think that anyone who has ever complained about “too many immigrants” has a moral obligation to watch that film.
If you don’t, frankly, you don’t know what you’re talking about.