During the 2011 Arab Spring, a flood of illegal Tunisian migrants washed up on the shores of the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, setting off a polarizing immigration debate.
Lampedusa is again in the news after at least 94 people died and 250 were missing after a boat packed with African migrants sank on Thursday.
Lampedusa, which is closer to Africa than to Italy and has a population of just 5,000, has reluctantly hosted waves of migrants over the years. However, most of the desperate who land in Lampedusa do not plan to stay in Italy, instead using it as a jumping off point to travel farther north in Europe to countries with larger immigrant populations.
THE FIRST ARRIVALS
In the spring of 2011, some 25,000 migrants, most of them young Tunisian men, arrived in Lampedusa in small, leaky boats after massive protests ousted Tunisia’s longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and set off a series of uprisings in Egypt and Libya.
Feb. 14, 2011: After some 4,000 migrants arrive in Lampedusa in just one week, which the Italian interior minister calls a “biblical exodus,” Italy offers to send police contingents to Tunisia to help tackle the waves of illegal migrants. Tunisia sternly rejects the offer.
March 28: Local fishermen in Lampedusa tow empty boats seized from the migrants across the entrance of Lampedusa’s harbour in a mostly symbolic protest to try to prevent any other vessels from reaching the island. “Enough, we’re full,” reads a slogan carried by two protesters.
April 3: More than 250 people are believed drowned after a boat carrying some 300 migrants capsized in rough seas about 65 kilometres off the coast of Lampedusa. Many die as they tried to swim toward approaching coast guard vessels.
April 5: Italy and Tunisia strike a deal to choke off the flood of Tunisians heading to Italian shores, with Rome agreeing to give short-term residency papers to 20,000 illegal migrants but intent on deporting new arrivals. Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni tells reporters the measures would allow Italy “to turn off the faucet” on illegal immigration. Under the accord, Mr. Maroni says Italy would supply Tunisia's security forces with the “assistance and means” to stop the flourishing smuggling rings.
April 8: Seeking to defuse the tense border crisis, Italy and France agree to joint sea-and-air patrols to try to block new Tunisian migrants from sailing to European shores. The deal comes after Rome and Paris had been sparring fiercely over what to do about the flood of Tunisians. After the migrants overwhelmed Lampedusa, Italy transferred thousands of them to camps on the mainland. Hundreds of the migrants, however, ran away from the Italian camps and headed straight to the French border, hoping to live with relatives already in France.
April 17: France shuts its border to trains from Italy carrying African migrants, drawing a formal protest from Rome and accusations it was violating European principles.
May 9: An overcrowded ship carrying up to 600 people trying to flee Libya sinks just outside the port of Tripoli.
Sept. 21: Migrants clash with police and residents on Lampedusa, prompting Italy to announce they all would be transferred and repatriated within 48 hours. The clashes come a day after migrants set their overcrowded holding centre on fire to protest Italy’s policy of forced repatriations.
With reports from Associated Press and Reuters