Why you should care
She governs a Mediterranean paradise, but you probably wouldn’t want her job.
The sun sets slowly over the Mediterranean and, leaning on a small fishing boat, Giusy Nicolini looks nervously at the horizon. She is not waiting for a ship to appear; rather, she hopes that none will. “We live in a constant state of fear here,” she says. “I never thought, when I took this job, that I would have to count so many bodies.”
Nicolini is the mayor of Lampedusa, a quaint little island at the southernmost tip of Italy that has become the front line of Europe’s war on migration. In October 2013, more than 360 would-be immigrants died trying to reach Lampedusa, and the deathly tide hasn’t stopped: Thousands of people have drowned in the surrounding waters since, including the 800 men, women and children who died in April when their ship capsized.
Just 70 miles from Tunisia and less than 200 from Tripoli, Libya, Lampedusa has long been a life raft for migrants trying to reach Europe. But in recent years, the numbers of would-be migrants has surged, as poverty and instability escalate in the Horn of Africa, the crisis in Syria worsens and Libya, once a kind of refuge, itself descends into chaos. During the first four months of this year, 40,000 people crossed the Mediterranean, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) — almost four times as many as in all of 2012, the year Nicolini became mayor. In response to the surge, Malta has cut back on rescue operations, while Spain has erected miles of fence.
It’s here that Lampedusa’s mayor has made her stand. Even as her European coastal counterparts have scrapped lifesaving programs in favor of closed borders, Nicolini has pushed hard for a more compassionate, humanitarian approach. Not only does she welcome the migrants to the island, but she also demands that more be done for them — including, for example, establishing humanitarian corridors that would make their passage safe. “The thing with human rights is you can’t make exceptions,” she says. “We Europeans can’t expect to have ours respected until we acknowledge theirs.”
In saying this, Nicolini has made herself a continental lightning rod. The EU is based on the idea of free movement of people, goods and currency within Europe’s borders, but many have grown queasy about opening the gates to others. Generally, the rule is that the farther north you go, the queasier the Europeans get. Germany, for instance, recently witnessed huge protests against immigration, and even in Sweden, the anti-immigration party is fast gaining political momentum. Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, on the other hand, has advocated more spending on search and rescue and for better coordination of asylum provision.
Even as Nicolini helps define the European debate on immigration — and wins accolades from Amnesty International and the pope — her future on Lampedusa is uncertain. Some residents accuse her of turning their 8-square-mile island into a free port for migrants. Lampedusa can’t afford it, they say: It needs to invest in things that pay off, like tourism, instead of devoting its resources to refugees.
But today Nicolini is not on Lampedusa. She is on Linosa, an even smaller island where she is also mayor. She’s been stranded for three days: This patch of cacti and volcanic rock has no airport, and boats will not make the passage back to Lampedusa if there is too much wind. She does not mind. The enduring quiet of this sunny little seaside town reminds the 54-year-old of the Lampedusa she grew up in, before the planes full of tourists and the boatloads of immigrants began to pour in. “I am loving the forced vacation,” she says. “I am always saying I need a break and here, I have no choice.”
Except for a few fishermen, most of Lampedusa’s 4,500 inhabitants live off tourism. A glance at its stunning beaches and shimmering turquoise waters explains why. The way the sunlight falls on sandstone imparts something of an African feel, and closing your eyes and breathing the hot salt air, you might easily imagine yourself on the coast of Tunisia. You wouldn’t expect a humanitarian crisis here, but the black bodies regularly wash up on its pale shores, and the fishermen go out to sea every day dreading the prospect of returning with shipwreck survivors rather than sardines.
The Mediterranean is the world’s most dangerous border. Since 2000, some 23,000 people have died trying to make the crossing, and these days, some 2,500 migrants arrive on Lampedusa by the month. Just last week a boatful of migrants from Libya, who’d survived a gas tank explosion onboard, arrived, many of them badly burned. In response, Nicolini has welcomed them, sheltered them, lobbied the Italian government for them. She’s also organized more funerals than she can remember. She works all the time and systematically refuses social invitations and press visits.
That is why I’m surprised when she finally rides into the interview on a bicycle, looking pretty relaxed. Nicolini is blond, petite and modish, wearing a trenchcoat and hiding her bird-like features behind a pair of Emporio Armani sunglasses and a thick layer of makeup. She’s married but doesn’t have children, which she says is “a good thing because I haven’t had to sacrifice them to this job.” She speaks a lot and loudly, stopping only to sip espresso or pull on her cigarette.
Nicolini grew up in the days before Lampedusa was on anyone’s radar. She’d spend carefree summers on the beach or exploring the island’s cliffs and caves with her siblings. As a leftist teen, she studied political science in Sicily, and after graduating, began to work for Lampedusa’s nature reserve. She ended up directing it for more than two decades.
When she ran for mayor in 2012, it was at her friends’ urging, she says — the island had suffered an epidemic of corrupt mayors, including one that would be sentenced to a five-year jail term — and she did not expect to win. But upon taking up the small, battered-looking city hall in 2012, Nicolini did not imagine she’d go from protecting migratory birds to migrant people.
Under her leadership, Lampedusa has become one of the Mediterranean’s most efficient migrant ports — able to process and shelter up to 700 migrants at a time (though its center has often seen as many as 2,000). She’s had to beg Rome for money to build and fix infrastructure, and she has had some success there, including a recent $22 million appropriation. She’s also won praise from human rights organizations, even the pope, as the awards that cover her office walls indicate. The UNHCR refers to “the Lampedusa model” for sheltering refugees and is trying to encourage other towns to adopt it. “The island’s administration could not do any more to help these people,” says Alessandra Romano, Lampedusa’s UNHCR representative. “It’s truly exemplary.”
Some of Lampedusa’s residents, however, hate all this — that their island’s name has become synonymous with poor huddled masses, and they resent Nicolini for it. Many feel their mayor puts the needs of the newcomers before their own — and their own needs are plenty. Unemployment is high. Infrastructure is weak: Since the island doesn’t have a maternity ward, for example, women must pay thousands of euros to give birth in Sicily. Worse, many believe that the migrant crisis will threaten the island’s biggest revenue source: tourism. “Nicolini doesn’t care about our problems,” says Salvatore Cappello, a local restaurateur who heads Lamepedusa’s businessman association. She basks in the international attention on her fight for immigrants, he says, “but what about us?”
Indeed, outside of July and August, the town looks a bit deserted and sad, like the set of an abandoned Wild West movie. Most hotels are closed, and postcards and souvenirs gather dust in kiosks while journalists huddle on terraces awaiting the next boat. Migrants walk up and down the main street in small groups, trying to score free cigarettes or SIM cards. The island’s big yellow church is often empty, except for a few Eritreans thanking God for helping them reach Europe or mourning those they lost along the way.
Nicolini says she is trying hard to change Lampedusa’s image from a migrant destination to an unspoiled nature reserve, a place where visitors can see sea turtles laying eggs on the beach or dolphins surfing the waves, or simply lounge by the sea. She points out that TripAdvisor just named Lampedusa the third-best Italian island in its Travelers’ Choice picks. But to succeed, she says, she needs all of Europe’s help. “If Northern European countries really want to help us deal with immigration, they should send their tourists here,” she says. Nonstop humanitarian efforts require a strong economy, she says.
Northern Europe, however, has other plans. After April’s record number of deaths, the EU responded inadequately, in Nicolini’s opinion. Yes, it tripled the funds for its new sea patrol mission, Operation Triton, but Nicolini points out that Triton is a border control task force, not a search and rescue one. The mayor wants the EU to restore Operation Mare Nostrum — an Italian-led yearlong search and rescue mission that saved thousands of lives in 2014.
The European Parliament has granted her an audience, but for the most part, the EU has doubled down on border control — keeping immigrants out instead of taking on a humanitarian burden and distributing it across states. The Dublin Regulation is a prime example: It states that new arrivals must seek asylum in the first country in which they register (by fingerprint), instead of where they hope to end up. The system puts a huge burden on southern countries and small nations like Malta. If migrants arrive in Italy, for example, but have family in the U.K. or Sweden, they try to escape. Some even cut their fingertips with razor blades.
Instead, Nicolini says all European countries should help to create humanitarian corridors and then distribute the newcomers among them. Right now she is designing a way to bypass some of the European red tape: a Lampedusa-led coalition of borderland locales, from Lesbos in Greece to Calais in France to Ceuta in Spain. The goal is to unite forces, share resources and lobby the European Parliament for immigration reform.
“If we don’t change, we are sentencing all these people to death,” says the environmentalist turned migrant advocate. Her voice, usually composed and stern, cracks when she speaks about the parade of pain visiting her island — the burned men who arrived last week, the shipwreck survivor who still calls for her husband in her dreams, the children whose little floating bodies are the first to be found. Nicolini sighs. “The same Mediterranean that gave birth to the European civilization is now witnessing its destruction,” she says.
The wind has died down and it’s time for Nicolini to return from her forced vacation. When the first glimmer of rose appears in the sky, Nicolini gets on the big rusty ferryboat. Her expression hardens as the vessel enters Lampedusa’s harbor. She is thinking of the pile of to-do’s waiting in her office. She is thinking that it’s a crucial time, what with the world’s spotlight on the immigration issue. Other countries are promising help and support, and the recent speech she gave to the European Parliament on refugee policy was much lauded.
Change may be on the horizon, but only distantly. The same boat that brings her to Lampedusa from Linosa will later today take 40 migrant minors to Sicily and then the mainland. Many of those kids will end up living in the streets of Rome or Naples, undocumented and uncared for. “Until Europe finds its humanity,” she says, “it’s just a matter of time until the next tragedy.”