ROME—Last week, Salvatore Martello, the mayor of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, which is just 8 square miles in area, bragged that his island was nearly COVID-free after all of its residents would soon be fully vaccinated.
Now, islanders are panicking after more than 2,000 migrants and refugees from all over unvaccinated Africa started arriving in smugglers’ boats on Saturday. By Sunday, 20 boats in all had arrived, carrying some 2,000 desperate souls who had somehow skirted the Libyan Coast Guard and made it all the way across the calm sea.
Local business owners voiced concerns that the arrival of migrants en masse has already scared off many people planning their holidays. The owner of the Hotel Baja Turchese said he had received several cancellations by people who were coming because they thought the island would be COVID-free.
“The migrants change the dynamic, because even if they have to quarantine and get tested, they have already potentially brought the virus back to the island,” he told The Daily Beast.
But many of the asylum-seekers escaping to the island had no choice but to flee the poverty, violence, and persecution they faced in their home countries.
On Monday, most of the migrants had been processed and, based on their interviews, were primarily from sub-Saharan Africa, including countries like Eritrea and Somalia that have not yet received a single dose of anti-COVID vaccines. Others were migrant workers who had been laboring in the oil fields of conflict-ridden Libya, where they suffered through consistent wage theft, discrimination and waves of violent civil strife.
Because the tiny reception center on the island is not conducive to social distancing, most were made to sleep on the hot pavement under the scorching sun in the dock area to avoid potentially infecting islanders. Until Sunday, the migrant center had been empty for nearly two years.
“The situation on Lampedusa is literally explosive,” Domenico Pianese, a police official, said in a statement to local media. “If we have another day like yesterday, with an incessant succession of disembarking, it won’t be possible to manage public and health safety.”
The island, which is closer to North Africa than Europe, has long been a magnet for migrants who have crashed their rickety blue fishing boats onto its rocky shores. The island hit a near breaking point in 2011, when thousands of people escaping Arab Spring violence in North Africa arrived.
But in 2014, when NGO rescue boats started patrolling the seas after Italy’s government-sponsored Mare Nostrum rescue mission ended, boats carrying migrants were often intercepted and rarely made it to Lampedusa, allowing the island to beef up its tourism industry. This summer, they were hoping for a windfall with stir-crazy Europeans looking for remote beaches and guaranteed sun.
It is unclear if Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s recent trip to Libya in any way changed the Libyan Coast Guard’s response to the latest exodus. Italy has trained and funded the Libyan coastguards and supplied them with boats, even as they have been accused of—and caught on video committing—horrific human rights abuses, including shooting at and leaving migrants to drown.
When they are intercepted by Libyan coastguards, the migrants are usually taken to squalid detention centers until smugglers, working with complicit guards, try to get them across the sea again. On Monday, the Libyan coastguards stopped some 600 migrants on several smuggler ships from departing, according to UNHCR.
The migrants and refugees that arrived will all have to quarantine and be tested, Martello says, and many will isolate on ferries docked off the island or be shuttled to the considerably larger land mass of Sicily. A massive ship is on its way to the island to offer additional accommodation. The bulk of the tests should be done by the end of the week. No COVID test results have yet been released.
So far this year, some 12,000 migrants have made it across the sea to Italy—four times the number that made it last year in the same time frame. They have come either on their own in fishing boats or were rescued by one of just a couple of NGO boats allowed to deliver them to land. Late Monday, the NGO group Alarm Phone, which tries to alert authorities to boats in trouble, reported that around 400 people were languishing on boats between Malta and Lampedusa. By nightfall, no one had rescued them.
In April, Italy was criticized by humanitarian groups after ignoring distress calls from a boat off Libya, which eventually capsized. At least 130 people were thought to have drowned in that accident. So far this year, around 500 migrants are known to have died at sea trying to reach safety. And they won’t be the last, especially if the group on Lampedusa are viewed only as COVID threats.