The tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, situated off the North African coast, continues to make headlines. Following the drowning deaths of hundreds of boat people last October, recent video footage has been used to denounce the inhumane conditions at the island’s reception centre for migrants intercepted by the Italian navy. The video shows Africans being hosed outdoors in a treatment procedure for scabies. Media stories have emphasized they were stripped naked in a public area during freezing December weather, while the original video compares the conditions to a Nazi concentration camp. Some television reporting has combined the scenes with footage from the past couple of years to suggest an extremely overcrowded prison-like environment.
The truth is, the facts surrounding the video have been deliberately manipulated to create maximum shock effect. As one of the only outsiders to have visited the centre during the period when the video was made (journalists are routinely denied entry), important information was overlooked.
Many of the migrants arriving that particular week had visible symptoms of scabies. It was sunny and around 16-17 Celsius the day the video was supposedly made. Although that isn’t particularly warm for open-air treatment, anyone familiar with the irritation caused by the contagious disease would know that the migrants likely welcomed the treatment, which was conducted in a closed-off section away from the centre’s main open area. The centre didn’t appear overcrowded.
What we really have here is someone clandestinely filming people undressing in a designated area and then using the images to provoke a public reaction against the reception centre in this poor and remote island. There’s no attempt at contextualising, just a blanket denunciation.
While I agree there isn’t enough privacy for the naked young men – and past conditions on the island were awful – this video doesn’t allow us to form a serious opinion. Furthermore, the timing of the video wasn’t coincidental: it was broadcast days before International Migrants Day and the European Union’s summit meetings addressing their situation. The shock tactics appear to have worked, as Italian and European political figures expressed their moral indignation and denounced the situation on Lampedusa.
Yet we shouldn’t be fooled. If our main concern is improving protection and increasing transparency, the actual officials who deal with migrants will see this “video montage” as a blatant manipulation that justifies their attitude towards journalists and restrictions on the flow of information. Unlike other similar centres around the world (e.g. Australia’s Christmas Island), migrants could unofficially leave the Lampedusa centre at the time the video was shot. The guards tolerated a breach in the fence and the migrants were allowed to walk to the nearby village where they talked about their terrible stories, particularly the Libyan part of their journey. A few questions come to mind when trying to understand why these desperate migrants, mainly young men from Africa, suffered so terribly to get to the fringes of Europe. Who’s in charge of the new European border security initiatives? Is it not the same politicians who are making public their denunciations of conditions on Lampedusa? Why are these initiatives ambiguous about whether they’re intended to prevent migrants from leaving Africa or to help reception in frontline countries like Italy?
Although the hypocrisy has barely been noticed, it’s striking how political leaders have made a public show of their outrage after the video was aired. Suggesting caution or presenting a nuanced explanation would’ve been too complicated. It’s easier for political leaders to portray themselves as humanitarian, and then discreetly allow more restrictions on access in order to avoid these situations in the future. The recently announced closure of Lampedusa’s centre should be seen in this light. Far from a victory for migrant rights, it simply shifts attention and does little to address the underlying problem.
The truly sad part of this story is that when the dust settles on this latest “scandal”, it’s unlikely that Italy and the EU will be any closer to finding a genuine solution to the plight of migrants who’ve been braving the Mediterranean in unseaworthy boats. We’ll continue to hear about tragedies occurring off Sicily, Malta, Gibraltar and the Greek islands while the authorities secretly do everything possible to avoid the arrival of boat people. As Greece assumes the EU presidency for the next six months (eventually followed by Italy and Malta), let’s hope we focus realistically on the complex issue of desperate migrants trying to reach one of the world’s most attractive regions. We owe them at least an honest discussion, not manipulation and sensationalism.
Michael Barutciski is director of graduate studies at the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs (York University), as well as associate editor of Global Brief magazine. He has conducted research in refugee camps for over two decades, and he spent part of December examining the situation of boat people in Lampedusa and Malta.