Migrants sent to sea to quarantine, blamed for rising Covid-19 cases, as Italy’s refugee crisis deepens — ‘No one wants them here’ 

Migrants sent to sea to quarantine, blamed for rising Covid-19 cases, as Italy’s refugee crisis deepens — ‘No one wants them here’ 

Refugees and migrants in Italy are being squeezed onto small Italian coastguard boats as officers in covered in white protection gear and preparing to take them to the Rhapsody ferry. There, almost 800 refugees and migrants will enter a 14-day quarantine. 

Ahmed is one of the refugees being taken to Rhapsody ferry from one of Lampedusa’s ports. Refugees and migrants have been removed from the overcrowded reception centre in Lampedusa due to lack of space, and now must undergo the two-week quarantine on the ferry. 

“Of course I am happy,” the 23-year-old told Al Jazeera by text message. “It’s always better than staying inside the centre.”

Lampedusa’s centre in the Imbriacola district has been called a “hotspot” and has been the focus of a debate between the far-right, governing political leaders and civil society. 

It was built to house 192 people, but last week there was as many at 1,500 as the number of migrants and refugees landing on the island’s shores rose during the summer. 

“They treat us like animals, I would say worse than animals,” said Ahmed, who arrived on August 19 on a dinghy from the Tunisian town of Sfax. Each night, he and others used to sneak out just to get something to eat.

“Often there is no water or electricity, you sleep on the floor or on a dirty mattress if you get one. There are no words to describe it … Some of them [staff] keep insulting us. I feel treated as we were terrorists,” he said.

What happens after ferry quarantine? 

What happens after ferry quarantine

Most Tunisians are considered economic migrants and are either returned to Tunisia or given a seven to 30-day period to find their own home. The Italian government has established two charters for a total of 80 repatriations a week so far. Often when they arrive, they attempt to leave Italy and reach northern Europe

“I don’t care if they will send me back, I’ll come back again, and again, and again,” said Ahmed. “For me [it] is a question to either die or arrive.”

Ahmed is among 7,885 Tunisians who arrived in Sicily this year up to August 31 – that’s almost six times higher than the same period in 2019. 

Migrants blamed for a rise in Covid-19 cases

migrants blamed for rise in Covid-19 cases
Migrants are being blamed for the rise in Covid-19 cases

Tunisia has been paying a heavy price from the pandemic, its economy is expected to shrink more than 4% this year and the unemployment rate is currently 16 per cent. 

Far-right politicians believe with Lampedusa’s hotspot overflowing, there is a threat tourists will be discouraged by the number of asylum seekers and they are using the pandemic to attempt to advance anti-migrant policies. 

On August 31, more than 360 people were rescued at sea and brought to Lampedusa. But they were met with protesters – coordinated by a member of Matteo Salvini’s far-right party – protesting and attempting to stop their arrival. 

Salvini has praised Sicily’s Governor for ordering the closure of the region’s reception centres – a move that boosted the governor’s popularity. 

Lampedusa’s islanders are used to refugees and migrants landing on their shores – it has been an area for decades that has been the first point of entry for those crossing the Mediterranean. In 2011, more than 50,000 Tunisians arrived. 

“We welcomed them bringing warm food and helping setting tents across town,” recalled former fisherman Calogero Partinico.

Like many others, he has drawn a link between the rising number of refugees and migrants and the coronavirus pandemic. But refugees only make up 3-5 per cent of Covid-19 cases in the country, whereas tourists make up 25 per cent of cases, according to Italy’s National Health Institute.

“Islanders live with an ancestral fear over sickness – given the isolation and lack of hospitals on the island – and over the potential loss of the summer season,” said Marta Bernardini, an aid worker from Mediterranean Hope, a project of the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy based in Lampedusa. “The coronavirus combined the two, fomenting a more hostile attitude towards migrants.”

There are also concerns over the use of ferry boats to quarantine migrants – it has so far cost the government at least 6 million euros for the rent of five vessels. 

No one wants them,” Lampedusa Mayor told Al Jazeera, pointing to some regional governors’ refusal to take in refugees and migrants. “Because since there is the COVID-19, there has been a media campaign against migrants saying that they are those bringing the virus.”

‘Floating reception centres – the dream of the Italian right-wing’

Further deepening Italy’s refugee crisis, the country’s reception capacity has recently been halved, Sami Aidoudi, a legal advisor and cultural mediator for ASGI said. 

“Salvini’s security decrees cut funds, hence most services had been reduced,” he said, referring to the former prime minister’s 2018 anti-migrant policies. 

The government had pledged a substantial U-turn on the hardline policy over migration. But so far, few changes have been made. 

“They are starting to establish floating reception centres – the dream of the Italian right-wing,” said Aidoudi. 

Confining migrants to the sea, out of the sight of residents “means [the] absence of information for civil society, for those that can offer legal counselling and finally for migrants themselves,” he said. “We can’t assist them.” 



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