The migration situation on Lampedusa and along the whole Mediterranean coast of Sicily is changing hourly but I am going to try, here, to sum up the main events of the past ten days. In doing so I beg your indulgence, reader, for the personal opinion that creeps in now and then - I cannot help it!
Lampedusa has, again, found itself at breaking point as boats from North Africa have continued to arrive and the situation culminated in there being more migrants on the island than inhabitants. As the world's media reported the inhumane conditions that the migrants encountered there - including what became known as the "hill of shame" near the port, where around 3,000 desperate people were sleeping in the open - few outside Italy spared a thought for the indigenous population who, fearing for their way of life and their tourist industry, were desperately appealing to both the Italian government and the EU for help. What the Lampedusans did not need, in my opinion, was Mr Bossi of the Lega Nord using a dialect phrase to tell the migrants, in no uncertain terms, to go back where they came from.
No civilised country should allow the sad scenes that we have seen on Lampedusa in recent days but the Italian authorities, whatever their shortcomings, have the extremely difficult job of trying to identify people who do not want to be identified - as shown when a boat crammed with Egyptians claiming to be Libyan docked at Catania last week - and are, I repeat, being left to handle the crisis largely on their own.
A tragedy, then, was waiting to happen and happen it did on Wednesday night, when up to eleven migrants, including a one-year-old child, drowned in the Sicilian Channel whilst trying to reach Lampedusa. Twelve survivors from their wrecked boat were picked up by the Italian Coast Guard from two Egyptian fishing boats which had reportedly saved them. The Italian Coast Guard is suspicious of the presence of the Egyptian boats in the area, however, and it may be that we have not heard the end of this story yet.
Alongside this tragedy, a story of hope has also emerged this week and it concerns a baby boy called Yeabsera or "Gift from God" who was born on a migrant boat spotted in the Channel on Saturday evening. Mother, father and child were first transferred to a mobile clinic on Lampedusa and when news of the birth reached some of the women of the island, they brought baby clothes and other gifts for the child, thus proving that humanity and kindness are far from dead on Lampedusa. The family were later flown to a hospital in Palermo and mother and baby are said to be doing well.
Meanwhile, nearer here, a boat carrying 350 men, 100 women, some of whom are pregnant and 40 children ran aground in the Marina di Modica on Monday night. The passengers, mostly from Eritrea and Somalia, are being housed in the Cpa [Identification Centre] at Pozzallo.
Italy, however, is not the hoped-for destination of most of these migrants: many, especially the Tunisians, wish to reach France, where they have relatives and or connections. The problem is, of course, that France does not want them. It is estimated that over 1,000 migrants have now escaped from the village built to house them at Mineo [Catania Province] and some of these, again showing the determination that got them to the shores of Europe in the first place, have managed to get to Northern Italy, only to be turned back at the border town of Ventimiglia. Four such migrants were found by border police on Wednesday in the boot of a car being driven by a Tunisian with French residency. They had paid their "friend" €300 for the privilege of risking death by asphyxiation. Other migrants are said to be risking their lives negotiating the treacherous and now heavily policed Alpine passes.
But every tragedy has its hero and the hero of this one has, for the Lampedusans, turned out to be Silvio Berlusconi. The Prime Minister, flying in yesterday, announced that he would clear the island of migrants within 60 hours, ensure publicity for its tourist industry on television, obtain tax cuts for its residents and that, as a gesture of solidarity, he had purchased a €1.5 million villa there. [He had "seen it on the internet."] And that was not all, for our supersonic showman kept the best news for the end of his speech: the Italian government is to nominate Lampedusa for the Nobel Peace Prize. That won over even the most die-hard of the Prime Minister's detractors on the island and who, in the islanders' position, would not rejoice? You may well be wondering, as I did, why Mr Berlusconi had not acted earlier but he had an answer for that: he had not, it seems, had a "clear picture" of the situation until he came to see for himself. Hmm... I cannot help remembering L'Aquila and at least one Sicilian newspaper has dismissed the performance as the "Silvio Show" today, but you have to admit it worked!
Today the Italian government has, with justification in my view, turned on its European neighbours, particularly France, for not helping in this crisis and I have to ask why a group of nations so ready to cooperate over a "no fly zone" - a euphemism for war - cannot cooperate over a humanitarian crisis partially caused by their actions.