Italy's Refugee Camp Horror

Thousands of Libyans are risking their lives to escape to a small Italian island, where conditions are appalling. Barbie Latza Nadeau on the camp and why Italy’s cozy relationship with Gaddafi is to blame.

03.21.11 1:16 PM ET

The battered hulls of hundreds of destroyed migrant boats are stacked like firewood along the port in Lampedusa, a tiny Italian tourist island 180 miles from the coast of Libya. Nearly 15,000 men, women, and children have made the 24-hour voyage across the Mediterranean to this tiny island since January 14, when Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s naval guards stopped patrolling the waters off the North African coast to curb the flow of illegal immigrants to Europe.

Most of those who make the journey claim to be bona fide refugees fleeing the troubled conflict zones in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. But few have documents to prove where they are really from, and even fewer have money after spending between $1,500 and $3,000 to make the trip. Those who qualify for refugee status are sent to the Italian mainland to wait out asylum hearings. Eventually they’ll be turned back to their countries of origin or released where they are free to travel throughout the open-border countries of Europe.

Italy fears that the boats are increasingly infiltrated with thugs and terrorists, planted by Gaddafi and his followers as a form of retaliation against Italy for abandoning Libya in their time of crisis. Last week just hours after Italy said it would lend airfields to any NATO-led UN-sanctioned military effort, a ferry from Tripoli carrying 1,800 men tried to dock in Lampedusa. Unlike the smaller boats that are often piled high with women and children, the ferry was suspicious. Italian authorities turned it away. “We have intelligence about some of the passengers,” said Italy’s Interior Minister Roberto Maroni. “We can’t be sure there are no terrorists on board.”

Libya is justifiably angry at Italy for siding with the West and not honoring its cozy friendship. Retaliation by mass illegal immigration and the planting of dangerous characters will hurt the country more than any military strike. The boats don’t go to Malta or Crete with the same regularity they head to Italy because those countries simply send them back. But Italy rarely does, even though they cannot maintain an acceptable ethical standard of humanitarian treatment of the would-be refugees due to the sheer inundation.

Lampedusa’s migrant detention center houses just 850 detainees. There are currently over 4,000 on the island. No country in Europe or elsewhere will help by taking refugees, leaving Italy to cope with the chaos alone. Once off the boats, there is now nowhere to sleep, very little fresh drinking water, and atrocious hygienic conditions. The seas last week were too rough for supply ships from Sicily to bring fresh drinking water and food supplies, yet more boats landed, often crashing into the rocky shores. Hundreds of lives have been lost at sea. Bodies are often caught in fishing nets or wash up on the shores. The local authorities, bolstered by military troops from the Italian mainland, have set up cage-like metal fences around the harbor and many of the immigrants are sleeping under semi-trailers draped with plastic to keep out the rain. The Red Cross calls the situation in Lampedusa “deplorable.”

Hundreds of lives have been lost at sea. Bodies are often caught in fishing nets or wash up on the shores.

Italian authorities were hoping to set up an emergency tent camp on the island over the weekend, but they were unable to deliver tents, portable toilets, and blankets when angry residents blocked the supply ship from docking. “Lampedusa cannot be transformed into a refugee camp just a few weeks before the summer tourist season begins,” says the now-desperate Lampedusa Mayor Dino De Rubeis. “You are giving us a death sentence. The immigrants have to be transferred to the rest of Italy or Europe. These immigrants are treated like animals, left to sleep under the rain without food or shelter.” A military boat is now docked off the island to take some of the immigrants, especially those the Italians suspect to be terrorists or released prisoners sent by Gaddafi, but the authorities on Lampedusa are often left to guess and use racial profiling to decide who stays and who goes.

In many ways, Italy is paying the price for befriending one of the most controversial leaders on the planet. While many countries scorned Gaddafi, Italy invested millions of Euros (and its reputation) by forging a lucrative friendship with its former colony based on oil and infrastructure contracts. Silvio Berlusconi and Gaddafi have exchanged 11 state visits in Tripoli and Rome during the last two years. Berlusconi’s photo shaking hands with Gaddafi is even embossed on an inner-page of Libyan passports. Rumors abound that Berlusconi’s famed “ bunga bunga” ritual was borrowed from the Libyan leader.

Italy and Libya signed a landmark “friendship deal” signed in 2009. Then, Italy was having an illegal immigration crisis and the centers in Lampedusa were overflowing, though nothing compared to the current state. Back then rioting prisoners took to the streets of the small island and set the detention center alight. Berlusconi was desperate and Gaddafi promised that he could stop the flow of immigrants from North Africa, patrolling the seas and acting as “bad cop” by ramming the boats and turning them back in ways that Italy could not. In exchange, Italy invested millions in Libya’s infrastructure.

The countries are now deeply entwined, so much so that Libya’s current crisis will affect the Italian economy. Over 100 Italian companies are present in Libya. In 2009, under the bilateral treaty, Italy promised $5 billion in infrastructure investments over a 25-year span. Italian companies, including ENI, which until last Thursday played a major role in oil production in Libya, do €11 billion ($16 billion) of business a year in Libya.

Last week as the U.N. deliberated the parameters of the no-fly zone now in effect, Libyan leaders threatened against Italian cooperation. When Libyans took to the streets in January and violence erupted, Berlusconi did not follow other world leaders by urging the dictator to exercise restraint. Instead, he insisted he didn’t want to “bother” Gaddafi. The reluctance to intervene when Italy may have been the only country the Libyan leader listened to was lost on no one, especially the Libyans. “Let’s hope Italy keeps out of this initiative,” Libyan Foreign Minister Khaled Kaaim told the Italian news agency ANSA as the U.N. Security Council was voting on a no-fly zone. “We are certain Italy has Libya’s integrity and the protection of the population at heart. Let’s hope that it doesn’t consent to the use of its bases.”

Instead, Italy offered up its military bases at Aviano, Naples, and Puglia, in addition to two bases on the island of Sicily and one on Sardinia. They are now filled with foreign military aircraft and supply planes running missions over Libya. Italy also pledged eight of its own aircraft, which are now flying missions, and Italy is vying to make Naples the strategic command center for the whole NATO operation. Italy also froze $10 billion Libyan assets held in the country.

This is not the first time Italy and Libya have been in conflict. In 1986, after American aircraft bombed Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya shot two Scud-missiles at a former American coast guard base in Lampedusa. The missiles missed their target, but the threat was clear. Libya likely no longer has the power to fight back with a similar rocket launch, but they are showing their power to strike back at Italy in other ways.

After airstrikes began, Libyan armed men seized an Italian tugboat in Tripoli used to service the coastal oil platforms. Eight Italian crew members are now captive on the ship, which is “zig-zagging” out of control around the port of Tripoli, according to the Italian Foreign ministry, which believes the seizure is a direct retaliation for Italy’s involvement in the no-fly zone missions. In the last 24 hours, two boats bypassed Lampedusa and limped into the port of Catania on the Sicilian island. This time the immigrants were all Libyan. Many of them arrived barefoot, their clothes soaked with seawater from the treacherous voyage in rough seas. Four more boats arrived in Lampedusa, each with nearly 100 people onboard. The Italian coast guard says many more are on the horizon.

As the conflict gets bloodier, the flow of refugees is expected to increase—the United Nations Refugee Agency anticipates a deluge of up to 350,000 people fleeing the conflict zone, most by way of Italy—a subtle sign that no matter how it ends, Gaddafi will have kept his promise to get even.

Barbie Latza Nadeau, author of the Beast Book Angel Face, about Amanda Knox, has reported from Italy for Newsweek since 1997 and for The Daily Beast since 2009. She is a frequent contributor to CNN Traveller, Departures, Discovery and Grazia. She appears regularly on CNN, BBC and NPR.