Lampedusa is an island in the Mediterranean Sea and is is part of the Sicilian province of Agrigento.
At a first glance, Lampedusa is idyllic. It’s unspoilt, beautiful and in 2013 one its beaches was voted the greatest beach in the world by travel website TripAdvisor. But for countless migrants, Lampedusa is a place of horror, death and despair.
Sinn Fein MEP and Derry woman, Martina Anderson, visited Lampedusa as part of a part of a GUE/NGL (Confederal Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left) European Parliament delegation to see the impact of the migrant crisis first hand last week. Martina said nothing could have prepared her for what she witnessed during her time there.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Martina spent time in prisons in both England and in the North of Ireland but she said the conditions she experienced in the likes of Armagh Women’s Prison and Durham Prison paled into insignificance when she visited some of the migrant centres in Lampedusa.
“I’ve personally experienced some poor conditions in prisons but they are nothing to some of the living conditions the migrants are having to endure in places like Lampedusa,” said Martina.
“When I visited one of the migrant centres there were around about 100 people in a really small space but talking to some of the people out there they told me that sometimes there can be as many as 500 or 600 people in these centres at any one time.”
Lampedusa is only 70 miles away from Tunisia in North Africa and it’s precisely because of its location in the Mediterranean Sea that it has been used by Italian authorities to rescue stranded migrants attempting to make the journey to Europe.
“The floors in these migrant centres are filthy and the mattresses that the men, women and children are sleeping on are very dirty.
“Many of the migrants I met were Muslims and at present they are celebrating Ramadan which means they can only eat at night time. The migrant centres are serving up the food in the morning, afternoon and evening.
“I also held a little two month old child called Falistine - she was sharing a small room with six other women and the mattress she was lying on was absolutely filthy.”
Mare Nostrum is an operation set-up by Italian government. During the operation at least 150,000 migrants, mainly from Africa and the Middle East, arrived safely to Europe.
“I met with people who have worked during the Mare Nostrum operation and the work they have done to date is invaluable. They have saved so many lives but the rest of Europe cannot let Italy tackle this issue alone. This is a problem for Europe to tackle.
“The EU Frontex looks after border management within Europe and recently their budget has increased from £2.5 to 6m. This shows that the money is there to tackle the problem but it’s the way in which the problem is being tackled that is not effective enough,” said Martina.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCR) reported that in 2014 a record-breaking 38 million people were forcibly displaced within their own country by violence.
“When many of these migrants arrive in Lampedusa they refuse to give their fingerprints because it means that they will then be locked into staying in Italy. Many of these migrants have family living in other parts of Europe and that’s where they are trying to get to. Put yourself in their shoes, if your family were in a specific country and you are in another country, you are going to do everything you can to reach them.
“Many of the people I met were from Eritrea, Sudan, Iraq, Syria and Libya. For many of them, if they did not leave their respective countries they would have almost certainly been killed. That’s why they take dangerous journey across the Mediterranean - they still have hope.”
Martina was clearly affected by what she witnessed in Lampedusa and explained why she believed the issue to be especially relevant to the people of Ireland.
“It’s not so long ago that ships of Irish migrants left places like Derry for America and Canada. The Irish coffin ships are a big part of Irish history but this is 2015 and it is still happening. We all have a responsibility to these people.
“They are human beings and I, along with my European Parliament colleagues, will be doing all that we can to ensure this issue remains at the fore and we will be doing all that we can to help these people and to stop the Mediterranean turning into a floating cemetery.”