Italian customs policemen escort migrants in Lampedusa, Italy, on Wednesday.
Italian customs policemen escort migrants in Lampedusa, Italy, on Wednesday. Antonello Nusca/AP
After two months of protests over a mounting humanitarian crisis, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi visited the southern island of Lampedusa, where thousands of Tunisian migrants now outnumber inhabitants.
The government leader promised to clear the island of the Tunisians within three days. But the islanders are skeptical, and many Italian regions don't want the migrants.
The port of Lampedusa hosts thousands of Tunisians — mostly young men. More than 20,000 have come since January, and many were transferred elsewhere in Italy. But thousands are still here, sleeping outdoors and without access to sanitary facilities. The town is a garbage-strewn encampment.
The migrant wave has tested the island's traditional warmth and openness. And when the Tunisians outnumbered the 5,000 inhabitants, anger exploded.
Premier Silvio Berlusconi salutes as he arrives during his visit to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, on Wednesday, as ships arrived to remove some of the thousands of North African migrants who have overwhelmed it while fleeing Libya.
Berlusconi finally heard their appeal and came to Lampedusa. Standing outside City Hall, he announced: "The evacuation has begun. It will take two, two-and-a-half days. From then on, Lampedusa will return to Lampedusans."
And then, a long list of promises: tax relief and lost revenue compensation, lower fuel prices for fishing vessels, fresh paint to spruce up the town, a golf course and a gambling casino.
Berlusconi also proposed making it into a duty-free island and said he, too, has become a Lampedusan after buying a villa there on the Internet.
The biggest promise, he left for the end: "This island has become the front line between cultures that do not have democracy, and Western civilization, which enjoys democracy, freedom and well-being. For this reason, my government will propose Lampedusa for the Nobel Peace Prize."
While a group of loyal Berlusconi supporters cheered, housewife Maria Grazia Gallazzo was outraged.
"He has to take his mask off; he's making fun of us," Gallazzo said. "Lampedusa is full of problems he has not addressed. He's a buffoon and it's shameful."
"It was a show, show without truth," said Francesco Ferrante, a Sicilian senator of the opposition Democratic Party. "Berlusconi didn't say anything about the cause of what has happened here — 5,000 human beings coming from Tunisia, treated like animals. He just came here to tell people of Lampedusa a tale, a fable."
Later, at a news conference, Berlusconi said he wasn't authorized to say where the migrants will go. Many regions don't want them, and the strongest opposition comes from Berlusconi's coalition ally. Northern League leader Umberto Bossi said all migrants "should get the hell out of here."
The prime minister sidestepped questions about what agreement has been reached with Tunisian authorities on taking back migrants and stopping the exodus.
Italy is also angry over inaction by its EU partners, especially France, and feels it's bearing the migrant burden alone.
On a cliff near the airport of Lampedusa, there is a ceramic gateway called the Gateway to Europe. The work of sculptor Mimmo Paladino, it is decorated with ceramic shoes, hats and broken dishes. It is an homage to all of the migrants, all of the immigrants, who have come from North Africa and who have died at sea.
It's estimated that hundreds die every year, but migrants continue to come.
On the horizon, there's yet another rickety fishing boat — today, this group has made it safely.