Never closer to Libya

As we cruised through the cloudless Sicilian night, heading for Birgi airport in western Sicily, we heard above us the distant drone of military aircraft taking off. F-15 or F-16 fighter jets, perhaps, but I couldn’t really tell you. They might have been bound for Libya or simply engaging in midnight military exercises. Again, I’m afraid that I couldn’t say for certain.

For the past five days, I had been soaking up the glorious Sicilian sunshine and gorging myself on fabulous Sicilian cuisine. This was for some much needed rest and relaxation – and I was determined to do both to the maximum extent possible. These days, I find it so hard to holiday purely for the sake of holidaying. Even when I was in Thailand, I got drawn into researching a story. Here, I managed to steer clear of work altogether.

Even so, Libya had never felt so close.

Only a few weeks before we were due to fly to Sicily, the Italian civil aviation authority announced that Birgi airport (which serves the city of Trapani) was to be closed. Usually, military planes use only one half of the airport, but, due to the ongoing bombing raids in Libya, it was felt that some extra space was needed.

This was set to be a huge inconvenience, as Ryanair flights would be directed to Palermo, a good few hours away by train.

Fortunately, just before our flight was scheduled to depart, a massive outcry by local businesses forced the airport to reopen. The construction of Birgi airport five years ago, and the regular flights of low-cost carriers, has really helped boost the tourism industry of western Sicily.

We stayed with a traditional Sicilian family, who had this intriguing though slightly objectionable habit of turning the television on whenever we were about to eat. Although this was great for my Italian, it was not exactly in line with how I had been brought up.

During breakfast, and throughout the evening, we would alternate between light family banter and intermittent distractions from the TV. This was a particular annoyance for me. Not only was I in the prime position to see everything that was shown on the TV, but I was perhaps more susceptible to the scantily-clad and sexually provocative women that would prance across the screen from time to time. As the evening wore on, they seemed to be wearing noticeably less clothes, which made focusing on the Italian all the harder.

Morning television was the most rewarding, and we would sit through a good hour of news, whilst our hosts opined about one issue or another. It was here that I learnt something of what is important to ordinary Italians at the moment.

And of course towards the top of the list came: immigration.

Lampedusa is a small Italian island that lies south of Sicily, closer to Tunisia than to Italy. It is therefore where a great many immigrants from northern Africa end up as they seek passage to mainland Europe – usually aiming, as a final destination, for France, the UK or Belgium.

This has been an ongoing problem in Lampedusa for years, but it was inevitable that the war in Libya would turn this trickle into a flood (although it is worth pointing out that some commentators claim that as many as 90% of immigrants still come from Tunisia and not Libya, and that many of these refugees use the Libyan war as an “excuse” to justify their arrival).

The enduring memory of the footage that I saw aired on Italian TV was of a young Arabic lad, snappily dressed and with immaculately coiffured hair, being escorted by two Italian police officers. As he passed the television camera, he turned, raised one hand slightly and said with a hint of arrogant confidence “libertà“. Freedom.

Of course, Italian journalists, mindful of the anti-immigration sentiment currently coursing through Italy, used this brief clip to put the perfect spin on all the news reports. Why is Italy even entertaining the notion that these people could be here to stay when, quite clearly, they had no real reason to leave their country in the first place?

The whole debate wasn’t helped by the usual faux-pas from Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who promised them that they could have Italian residence, which would then allow them to travel freely within the Schengen area.

Of course, such a promise is not Berlusconi’s to make, since it requires the unanimous agreement of all Schengen partners.

A furore erupted in the kitchen – our hosts were thankfully not Berlusconi lovers – and there were great cries of “schifo! schifo!” (which I later learnt is an expression of disgust for something that is said).

Once it became apparent that Berlusconi’s promise would not be (could not be) honoured, a number of refugees on the island of Lampedusa threatened to go on hunger strike until their demands for asylum were met.

This prompted an angry discussion among the dinner table, where the consensus seemed to be “if they want to starve, let them starve”.

Another proposal was to repatriate all official residents of Lampedusa to an area of Sicily, presumably one that is not used at the moment, with a generous compensation package, and then blow up the island (Lampedusa that is, not Sicily).

All over Europe, similar debates are taking place, in one form or another, and it is easy for a libertarian such as myself to try and seize the moral high ground by arguing that the issue is far more nuanced than Europe’s right wing press would have you believe.

But over the past few days, I have done a great deal of reflection over the issue – the Sicilian countryside is great for bringing out the inner zen – and have come to the following conclusion: there is a huge problem with libertarianism in trying to resolve Europe’s immigration problem.

When Violetta and I decided to go and live in Sudan for a few years, we did so because of the wonderful opportunity to find out more about the culture there – and about Islam. We were paid a shockingly poor salary, given the high living costs, and I would certainly have been much better off financially staying with my job in London. But I don’t for a moment regret the time that we spent there. We had a great time and we learnt a huge amount about that area of the world. We came away a great deal wiser.

But, whilst I was there, I hardly ever met a Sudanese person that was interested in coming to Europe to find out about European culture. Many people that I met wanted to come to Europe, usually England, but couldn’t really tell me the first thing about the country. Only that it oozed money and opportunity (here I must point out that I am talking about those individuals that are from a Sudanese, rather than international, background). Even worse, with one very notable exception (and I really hope that one day he gets the chance to go to England), they didn’t want to know. They didn’t want to understand the rules of cricket, or what it is like to sit in the middle of the Cornish countryside and enjoy lashings of clotted cream on your freshly-baked scones, or whether there is anything that the Scots cannot dip in batter and deep fry.

They just didn’t want to know.

All they wanted to know was how much they could earn when they got there.

And that is why Europe’s gates have to remain closed. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t help those in need. We should. Dammit, we have a duty to help those countless destitute people seeking to escape tyranny in their poorly-run countries. Especially if we’re going to bomb the bejesus out of a place.

But we must distinguish between those genuinely needy folk – many of whom never actually make it to Europe – and those people who just want to come here and earn a quick buck.

The sad thing is that the actions of the many are ruining the opportunities for the few who may actually be interested in gaining more than just financial rewards from their trip to Europe. We desperately need a single, homogeneous immigration policy.

To taint this entry with a little humour, perhaps I might venture a suggestion. Perhaps one benchmark about whether to allow immigrants is whether a market for guidebooks exists in the home country. If guidebooks for England or France or Belgium are selling like hot cakes in their home country, then let them come, for we will have known that they have transcended that crucial barrier and discovered that they can find more in Europe than their fortune. Just as Dick Whittington, a 15th Century mayor of London, found when he came to the capital that the streets aren’t really paved with gold.

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