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Lampedusa is a small Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea with a population of roughly 4.000 people. Their local economy is mainly based on tourism and fishing industry and from a general European perspective, the island is just like any other peaceful holiday retreat. From the coast of North Africa however – it is the gateway to a better life. Jette Elbaek Maressa reported to the Danish newspaper Jyllands-posten about the surge in illegal immigration from political hotspots in the Middle East.
The road through Lampedusa has become one of the popular options for refugees to illegally enter Europe. On a daily basis, the Island’s inhabitants witness the motley fishing boats reach their port while heavily armed Italian police guards are waiting to greet the new arrivals. After severe protests on behalf of the Islanders, the Italian government has stepped up its effort to protect the vulnerable outpost who’s tourist industry has taken a hit since the refugee boats started to arrive.
Thousands of young Tunisians have already ventured the sea in their pursuit for jobs and prosperity. The dream takes little more than a boat and a gallon of gas and the chance that many more will follow has got the Italian government raising alarm in the EU. They believe the political unrest in the Middle East, combined with the high unemployment rate among the younger population, will inspire a mass immigration through the risky sea channel. And for the Island community on Lampedusa, it could cripple their livelihood.
The question is: Why is the youth of North Africa leaving? The scarcity of jobs is quoted as a major reason with youth-unemployment rates currently around 25% in Egypt and 30% in Tunisia. The recent populist revolt in some parts of the Middle East against decades of dictatorship was sparked by a young man who represented the situation for many in his country, 26-year-old Muhamed Bouazizi, when he set himself on fire. However, the change of government has not in the short term produces more job opportunities. It takes a lot of patience and time before either Tunisia, Egypt or any other Middle Eastern country is ready to create even half of the 5 million jobs needed for all people in the Arabic world to be employed, according to a youth advisor from the Arab League. He explains that the journey to Europe is not an attempt to cut ties with their home of origin – rather, these young people want to earn a living abroad and return more prosperous.
The irony from a European perspective is that they too are faced with an alarming situation in their national job markets. In comparison, the south of Italy is experiencing 30% youth-unemployment, Britain has 20% while young people in Spain are dealing with 40%. While Italy whines over the around 5.000 illegal immigrant from Lampedusa and asks the rest of the EU for help, Frontex informs that 90% of all illegal immigration is done at the borders of Turkey and Greece. Others use the route through Spain via the Canary Islands and Morocco. Sweden has even been vocal in this debate, explaining that they have 32.000 asylum cases every year – for a country of only 9 million people.
Back in Lampedusa, the coast guards continue to inspect the sea towards the African coast. They know what some of the young refugees don’t: That Europe is no paradise and that the only people who really benefit from the boat trips are the traffickers who organize the dangerous journey. It is just too late to tell them when they arrive.