Lampedusa: Italy’s Little Island Of Hope For Immigrants

On Sunday, May 9, 2021, Italian media reported four boats arrived at Lampedusa, a tiny island south of Italy. These boats brought in over 2000 immigrants from Africa and Asia that arrived in two batches within 24 hours.

Despite the frightening death toll and Italy’s harsh immigration laws, each year, a staggering number of immigrants arrive on the shores of Lampedusa. This raises the question of why this island is the favoured choice for illegal immigrants.

Through visualizations, this article explores the island of Lampedusa, migration rates, the recorded death toll of immigrants, the population of the island, and ultimately, refugee acceptance.


Lampedusa is an island with an area of 20.2 square kilometres (7.8 sq mi) and a population of about 6,000 people.

Surrounded by the Mediterranean sea, the island is the southernmost part of Italy and is about 113 kilometres (70 miles) away from North Africa’s Tunisia.

Immigration Rates In Lampedusa

For years, Europe has been struggling with a massive intake of illegal immigrants from war-torn countries in Africa and the Middle East. Time has only made the problem worse.

Immigrants arriving by the Mediterranean sea. Source: Africa In Harlem

A study showed that about 90% of all immigrants that arrive in Italy over the sea, go ashore on Lampedusa.

From 2003 to 2004, about 21,000 illegal immigrants arrived in Lampedusa, with 13,000 from 2004 alone. In 2005, 15,527, 18,047 in 2006; and 1,749 in 2007.

The immigration phenomenon reached its peak in 2008 with 31,250 migrants arriving on the island (86% men and 14% women).

The flow of migrants was then interrupted in 2009 with a bilateral agreement between Italy and Libya. Following this agreement, only a few hundred people arrived in Lampedusa annually.

The Coast Guard Revenue Officers and the Navy were charged with intercepting all the boats at sea and escorting them to Lampedusa, where migrants were retained before the completion of all the bureaucratic procedures of identification.

However, in 2011, the turmoil in northern Africa forced the resumption of migration towards Lampedusa, with approximately 51,753 people arriving between January and December, according to the Italian Interior Ministry.

The majority of migrants were Tunisian males, aged 18-45 years, and towards the end of this period, boats also arrived from Libya, bringing people fleeing from Eritrea, Somalia and Libya.

In 2013, an estimated 13,078 migrants arrived at Lampedusa, heralding hundreds of others in the coming years and in 2015, about 33,000 arrived on the Island on separate boat trips.

In 2021, about 14,000 people have reached Italy’s shores, including about 2100 new arrivals on Sunday.

Death Toll Of Immigrants

Italian soldiers carrying the body of a victim from the October 3 shipwreck in the Lampedusa harbour. Source: Daily Mail UK

With its postcard-pretty beaches, this little island’s waters has been a backdrop for horrifying tales of tragic ends for immigrants in the past few years. Due to its proximity to Africa, loads of immigrants from Nigeria, Sudan, Libya and other countries battle the great sea with the singular goal of escaping the hardships of Africa. But it is not the case for most.

According to a study by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), more than 33,000 migrants have reportedly died since 2000 while attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

In 2008, the Refugee Council (Flüchtlingsrat) officially registered 649 deaths on the coast of Lampedusa.

In 2013, Italy mourned about 300 immigrants who died in what was dubbed the Lampedusa migrant boat tragedy after their boat capsized and in 2014, about 3279 died on the same journey.

In 2015, reports showed that about 3,030 people were believed to have died between January and August while crossing the Mediterranean sea. 4621 deaths were recorded in 2016.

Oftentimes,  migrants who manage to reach the Mediterranean shore in North Africa after a month or a year-long journey through the Sahel and the Sahara Desert, where temperatures can be up to 60 degrees Celsius during summer and below zero degrees during winter, die of thirst, accidental injuries, hypothermia, burns, cardiovascular events, pregnancy and delivery-related complications onboard the boats en route Lampedusa.

In October 2013, Italy launched a search and rescue operation called Mare Nostrum intended to save the lives of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean. Though the program saved tens of thousands of people, the government ended the program in 2014 when Frontex, the European Union agency that manages international borders, launched their own operation, called Triton. Politicians and activists claim the decision to cancel Mare Nostrum was a poor choice and led directly to the deaths of thousands of migrants.

Refugee Acceptance

Lampedusa is building a home for the marginalized immigrants with its opposition to reactionary immigration laws, leading the way for the rest of the country.

Judging from its frequently crowded reception centre, one can deduce immigrants are not exactly thrown back into the Mediterranean. Officials are known to make sleeping provisions for immigrants as the centres can only contain a few hundred at the same time.

According to media reports, the recent influx of migrants was given mattresses at the housing centre, while hundreds more were transferred to an unused passenger ferry offshore to await COVID-19 tests.

In Lampedusa, over 35.000 refugees have been granted the right to permanent residence in Italy.

Italy has continued to insist and persuade fellow European Union nations to take in many of the migrants. Unfortunately, these pleas have not yielded many successes.

Patsy Nwogu

Reporting on data-driven featured stories and investigations.

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