Lampedusa sparkles under an unrelenting sun, its waters clear turquoise against white sand. The scorched beauty of this tiny Italian island belies the despair that takes place off its shores, even on the highest part of the land, where an overstuffed refugee camp is tucked away from the sight of everyday Lampedusans.
Being the first European point of contact for thousands of migrants and refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa, the island is a risky beacon.
Since 2014, more than 17,000 children, men, and women have died while trying to make their way to Europe through the extraordinarily dangerous route from North Africa to Italy, according to the International Organization for Migration. Most of them drown in overcrowded boats that were never seaworthy to begin with.
On a single day this past May, 1,000 migrants and refugees reached Lampedusa. That made 11,000 who had landed since the beginning of the year. With an official capacity of just 192 people, the sole migrant detention center on the island is beyond crowded—it hosted on average more than a thousand migrants in September 2020, according to the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore.
I last reported from Lampedusa in 2015, but the remote island has been on my mind lately because of the uptick in headlines about migrants and refugees dying while trying to cross another body of water, the traffic-heavy English Channel. At the end of November, 27 people died at sea when their boat capsized. More than 25,000 migrants and refugees have crossed the Channel so far this year, CBS News reported. Until recently, they primarily traveled to England by truck, but an increase of security controls in the Port of Calais in France has made this route less feasible. Adding to the shift is a decrease in vehicle traffic because of COVID-19, Tony Smith, the former director general of the UK Border Force, told BBC News.
Reading the CBS story, I saw the blinding light of Lampedusa again. In my week there in June 2015, at least 24 people died trying to reach the island—and the chance at a better future they hoped it held.
When I reached the island’s detention center, there was virtually no way to access any of the women refugees. In the first place, I had to actually get through the dirty front gates, which were guarded at all times by the carabinieri, the military police.
Before my arrival, I obtained official permission to enter. But when I got there, that permission had magically disappeared. That led to four dusty days of standing outside the gates, swatting away scarabs and begging guards to let me in.
By the time I was finally let through the gates, I was told I would be allowed to speak to just two women. Two, out of 71. My mouth hung open for any scarabs to enter.
In the end, NGO workers were willing to tell us some of the stories they’d heard from women in the center, including the time a Nigerian woman offered her own child—born of rape—to one of them.
Pretty much everyone I met had been stabbed, beaten, raped, or shot while making the journey from sub-Saharan Africa through Libya to Italy. But these stories we would get mainly from men—they were the only ones who would jump the fences and wander through the town’s main strip, Via Roma, which was ringed with outdoor cafés. Police would eventually round the men up and march them back up the hill, but while I was there, I got to know a number of these young guys.
Five men from Sudan, Morocco, Gambia, Eritrea, and possibly Syria (one man changed his story a couple of times) sat and chatted with me for hours. All of them had cell phones with spent SIM cards, which led to a sweaty hour of me running from bank to bank to try to change what little money they had into euros so they could make their phones work again. Apparently, local shop and bank employees refused to do business with them.
Even with their useless SIM cards, the men were able to show us photos from inside the center, which we’d been forbidden to tour. Overcrowding had forced them outdoors onto the cement, where they’d rigged a kind of cube of thin mattresses for cover. Boredom and frustration made for a daily toxic mix at the facility. Everyone fought over food. The air hung heavy with trauma and the burden of an unknown future.
At one point, Aden, 22, from Sudan, pulled up his shirt to display a ragged scar from a bullet wound he said he received while imprisoned during his transit through Libya. David, 26, described coming over on a boat with 560 people. He said they had gone 24 hours without water, and that the engine had broken down, making them all sick from smoke. Sami, 33, had a bandage on his arm where he’d burned it on the engine in his boat’s crowded hold.
When the men realized that I had a working phone, they begged me to let them send their families messages telling them that they were okay. None of them had spoken with their families since they had left home weeks or months before. One got through to his brother—elation!
The phone went round and round as I played referee, making sure each man got his turn. We huddled around our café table, espresso cups and cigarettes strewn about, visibly tense as we watched each person try to reach family members from whom they were now very disconnected, and very, very far away.
Despite all I’ve written while I’ve been on what I sometimes think of as the “misery beat,” there is always so much more to say—and show—about the women and men I’ve met over the years. I have thousands of photos that would give you a visceral sense of the desperation.
But I think the photos here will really bring home how despondent, reduced, and forlorn people have to become to attempt such a deadly journey. These photos were taken at Lampedusa’s “boat graveyard,” among the remains of the rickety containers that carried pregnant women, babies, families, to this shore.
You can see the few possessions people brought with them and lost or left behind on their journeys, which ended in either rescues or drownings: bottles of water, socks, T-shirts, sneakers, cigarettes. You can see why, with no shade to shelter under, those on the top of the boats became sun poisoned.
But to really understand the true nightmare they lived and continue to live—if they survived the journey—consider that the smugglers allowed lighter-skin Arabs space above deck, but forced the Black Africans to remain below deck, where the heat becomes unbearable, where diesel fuel leaks and burns their skin. Even among the misery, the men who take the migrants’ money often leave them bereft of food and water, and sometimes traffic them into Italy without their consent, and still stratify people by their skin color.
Despite these and a litany of other humiliations and deprivations, despite the ever-present threat of violence and illness, despite the red tape and closed borders, despite the lack of concrete prospects in the countries they are fleeing to, the men and women I’ve met in my reporting are willing to risk losing everything because of the severity of the conditions they were often born into.
In June 2020, vandals burned Lampedusa’s boat graveyard, destroying hundreds of carcasses that stood as such a potent symbol of the migrant and refugee crisis. But obliterating these signifiers of suffering has not erased the drivers that make people willing to die for a better life. While nations close borders and media pundits wring their hands about immigrant population booms, crossings of the English Channel are on a precipitous rise, and the vast flow of people through the Mediterranean continues.
At the end of September, nearly 700 migrants and refugees were rescued from an overloaded 50-foot boat limping in off the coast of Lampedusa. And just three weeks ago, 75 people drowned in those blinding turquoise waters.
As long as wars continue to displace people and repressive governments deny them basic rights like freedom of thought, protection from torture, and an education, they will continue to risk everything for a chance at a better life.