Lampedusa, Still the “Port of Safe Haven”

July 21, 2014 / Local Interest
Lampedusa, Sicilia

Closer to Africa (about 113 km. from Tunisia) than to Sicily (176 km. north), the island of Lampedusa is southern-most point in Europe, where Africa meets Europe, where Arab and Christian sailors crossed paths for centuries, praying to their own gods in adjacent grottoes on the island.

Cala Creta, a favorite swimming spot

Steps away from the sacred grottoes, the Santuario della Madonna del Porto Salvo (Sanctuary of the Madonna of Safe Haven) remains a venerated spot, for lampedusani and vacationers alike. When I was there in August, an elderly woman whispered a prayer while reverently caressing the cloak of the Madonna over the altar.

La Madonna del Porto Salvo shrine draws island visitors
La Madonna del Porto Salvo is dear to the Lampedusani
La Madonna del Porto Salvo, venerated for centuries by the Lampedusani

Her image is all over the island. At the grocery, owner Donatella asked Rosalia to leave her cash register to show us the Madonna image on the wall. During the evening passeggiata, elderly Pasquale led us to his house to see the Madonna del Porto Salvo flanking his doorway, giving us Madonna prayer cards.

Young Rosalia proudly shows an image of La Madonna di Porto Salvo
Lampedusa main street, Via Roma, at night
Pasquale's front door bears an image of La Madonna del Porto Salvo

Logicamente, Pope Francis visited the beloved Madonna on his July 2013 visit to Lampedusa, his first Papal mission: centering his Papacy on the poor and neglected, he met with African immigrants arriving by fishing boats, fleeing poverty, hunger, war.

Pope Francis arrives in Lamepdusa on July 8th

All over the island, you can still see “Benvenuto, Papa Francesco” banners draping balconies.

Warm welcome to the Pope in posters all over the island
Papal welcome on a Lampedusa balcony

We often saw clutches of immigrants, too, strolling in the evening before re-entering the centro di accoglienza (“welcome center”), where they’ll stay until being sent to the mainland.

Centro Accoglienza for the immigrants

I talked to many – from Gambia, Nigeria, Mali, Eritrea – hearing stories of safe crossings and stories of tragic crossings, too, not all on their boats surviving the voyage.

Just-arrived Eritreans and Mali refugees with hopes for a better future
Gelato for 3 Nigerian immigrants, just arrived
Gambia immigrants on a Lampedusa street

A testimony is near the port: decrepit fishing boats of the crossings piled high in a sort of “boat cemetery.”

-Boat cemetery- of the immigrants
Pile of discarded immigrants' boats

And in Lampedusa’s cemetery, I walked past the rows of lampedusano family mausoleums – in polished marble, fresh flowers near the photos of the deceased – to a dirt plot with fifteen rudimentary crosses, made respectfully by the custodian of the cemetery as markers for immigrant graves.

Immigrants' who did survive the crossing are buried here in the Lampedusa cemetery
Immigrants' burial plot

While there, Pope Francis dropped a floral wreath on Lampedusa’s aquamarine waters, final resting place of more than 20,000 immigrants at that point who never reached Europe.

Lampedusa water

The Mediterranean continues to be a cemetery: last October, hundreds on a boat from Libya drowned just off Lampedusa, so tragically close to the island of “safe haven.” After this tragedy, Italy established Mare Nostrum centered on assistance to those arriving off Italian coasts. Italy has taken in over 60,000 immigrants to date in 2014, already blasting away the record year of 2011 when 63.000 immigrants reached “safe haven” here.

But as Interior Minister Alfano pleads, all of the European Union must assist Italy in providing succor to the immigrants: Lampedusa cannot be the only “port of safe haven.”

Lampedusa update:
Over 5,000 refugees from Africa have arrived on the Italian coast in the last two months. This week-end, nearly six hundred arrived on a boat from Libya but not all arrived alive: 29 died of diesel inhalation closed in the hold (where passage costs less – about $1500). And the tragedy continues. Syrians and Palestinians now joining the ranks of those seeking “the port of safe haven.”

Click here for more on Lampedusa.

An Army special forces soldier picks up news on an immigrants' arrival by boat - just off the coast
A Lampedusa signora watches island life unfold around her

Port of Lampedua - point of immigrants' arrival and vacationers' boat departures

Anne Robichaud

by Anne Robichaud

An authorized Umbrian tour guide, Anne and her husband Pino worked the land for many years in the 1970’s so rural life, rural people, rural cuisine are una passione for her. See Umbria from “the inside”: join her May 2017 ten-day tour centered on discovering Umbria, Anne’s Umbria.

See for more on her Umbria tours. Do see for news on the Assisi apartment – and Assisi countryside guest house – she and Pino now rent out.

Anne writes frequently on Umbria and other areas of Italy. Read about her annual U.S. Feb/Mar cooking classes and lectures, as well as her numerous Italy insights on her blog.

35 Responses to “Lampedusa, Still the “Port of Safe Haven””

  1. M. G. Stephens

    If all over the island they were saying to the Pope, “bevenuto,” he must have been scratching his head and wondering what they meant.



  3. Anne, a great article and beautiful photos. Until I read this, I had a completely different idea of Lampedusa – thinking it was a grim and grey place. Seeing the people including the immigrants made me happier that the island is a safe haven. Everyone loves gelato. Although it is a severe burden on Italy, I am hoping that the EU will step in and provide the much needed funding to alleviate the suffering.

  4. Dear Anne, Thank you for another great, informative article. Each time I read your excellent writing, I feel I am by your side, listening to you as we walk around the beautiful country of Italy. I look forward to many more words from you in the future.

  5. I like learning more and unusual aspects of Italy. The plight of immigrants continues to haunt as countries who are considered civilized ought to work at the core, helping disadvantaged countries and tribes to become self sufficient in their own homelands. No one likes to leave home, they want their lives to be better at home. What is the solution to ending war, strife, hunger and bringing peace and prosperity to all? People who are already prosperous or at least having a standard income and home life can work together through the laws to build world communities and establish criteria for stable communities. If the problem stems from greed, how do we end greediness and lust for power, hate, war, all the things that make people have to leave their homelands? Keep the Internet free and open to all, because that way we can learn, educate and revise our agendas towards world peace.

  6. Anna Mangus

    Thank you for this very real and informative article. It has really opened my eyes to a situation we hear little about over here in the US.

  7. Anne Ladky

    Thank you, Anne, for continuing to bring your unique observations and perspectives to Italian Notebook. You reminded me that Italy has been a crossroads in many ways for centuries, so it’s not surprising that it continues to be in this time of poverty and strife in many of its geographic neighbor countries. Such a challenge to our society, wherever we may live. As always, your writing is just wonderful.

  8. Rosemary Johnson

    We, in the United States, hear so much about our own immigrant problems that we forget how other countries have to cope with their own immigration issues. Thank you for a really informative article. I hope they get the funding they need to cope with the influx of people.

    • Britta Pigorsch

      I completely agree. In America we are very good at wearing the blinders when it comes to other nations immigration problems. How real the issue is in Italy really became apparent for me in your kitchen Anne. Watching the Italian news and seeing these “boats” which the immigrants take was a startling image. It is wonderful that there is this safe haven for those immigrating, but unfortunate, just like the central american children immigrant problem here in the states, that our governments have yet to truly create a sustainable/safe way for these desperate people to enter. I thank you for this article to bring attention back to a very serious issue- that is unfortunately around the globe.

  9. Jan Johnson

    Thank you Annie. Another informative article which reflects similar circumstances globally. I’m not surprised to read of the generosity of the people of this small island. How often is it that those with less are prepared to give so much more. A lesson for all of us.

  10. Katie Larsh

    May this tiny island receive their much needed help and may we be a part of the solution and work to reform our country’s political fiasco which creates an America that makes decisions based on fear instead of an educated and thoughtful study of what we have been complicit in creating in our Central American neighboring countries.

  11. Marianna Raccuglia

    Sad story, as it is in many countries having to deal with the immigrant migration.

  12. Judi Dalton

    In Arizona, we are having a similar challenge as people flee from desperate circumstances in countries such as Guatemala.
    This year, there is a huge influx of kids traveling on their own. It strains resources, causes controversy and somehow, immigration reform needs to be revamped around the world

  13. We are so politicized and fearful here in the U.S. that we have forgotten that we are a nation of immigrants. Good for Lampedusa; I hope they get needed support from the rest of Europe. Thanks for shining a light on this crisis, Anne.

  14. Virginia Lupori

    Boats with refugees have also been arriving in Salerno. On Saturday, another 2500 were rescued, with more than 2100 arriving in Salerno according to an article in La Repubblica (18/7) . I think that Italy is doing what it can, but is struggling to provide adequate services. Many are frustrated by EU policies that dictate that the country where refugees land is responsible for their care. I believe that the majority of Italians are sympathetic to the plight of the refugees, but they feel overwhelmed with this responsibility as Italy itself is still trying to recover from the economic crisis. Italian wages remain low and the unemployment level is very high, so high that many Italian youth are desperately trying to find jobs in Germany, the US, Canada or Australia.

  15. Suzanne and Jack

    Hello Ann,
    Thank you for raising awareness to this contentious issue. It’s unimagineable how devastating the lives of refugees are that they are prepared to cross oceans in leaking boats to be safe. Sadly the Australian Government’s attitude toward refugees lacks the humanity demonstrated by Italy.

  16. karen kotoske

    Annie, thank you for your thoughtful, moving, account about the refugees, economic refugees, the lucky survivors of desperate and dangerous voyages to the safety of Italian shores where they can begin their lives anew, knowing that so many other courageous women and men are not as fortunate. Bravo for Italy for providing shelter and hope (at the same time we hope other nations lend a bigger hand to Italy.)
    I hope that more voices will speak out for the refugees who come to our US borders. I thank God no one turned my ancestors away when they arrived with their hopes on American soil.

  17. Anne Robichaud

    Thanks to all for your comments and update into today’s Umbrian papers: Prefecture of Perugia has asked Umbrian hotels and religious guests houses to take in 437 immigrants, offering food, bed, clothes and language assistance. Those taking in immigrants will be paid 35 E per night per immigrant. Up to 40 immigrants can be housed in any city though not more than 20 if pop. of town less than 5000. These immigrants would be staying in such housing until Dec 31, 2014. All over Italy, local governments are working out plans for immigrant housing. Italy moves forward on this…and our foreign minister requesting EU immigration legislation asap

  18. Frank Martino

    If il Papa likes immigrants so much he has thousands of rooms to make them comfortable. Here in America the borders are open. Illeagal and diseased. Your cite loves Italian culture but you will not have it much longer if you welcome Africa Willing to discuss RSVP

  19. Marcelo

    Re: the previous comment – I usually shy away from those that use “comments” to begin a volley of debates that annoyingly steal away from the direct message of a blog, but can’t help comment on your comment. As an American (I am assuming you and I both share residence in America since you mentioned “here”), your statement appears to be somewhat un-American. I was born here, and both of my parents were immigrants when they were young. The cultural foundation of our country is the beacon example of the amalgamation provided by immigrants from around the globe. Our country rests and relies upon immigrants to support the synergy that makes us who we are, that makes us undeniably American. Our micro- and macro-economic dynamics are integrally supported by immigrants – illegal or not. Furthermore, the proportion of “illegal and diseased” immigrants into America, as you stated, are grossly unrecorded, and I would welcome epidemiologic data to support that this proportion is different from that in the entire pool of American citizens. This is not a platform for me to delineate what makes America American, but this article poignantly describes the exact contrary to your statement. I would argue, based on my homeland, and on others the world over, that welcoming the integration of immigrants into the proud, vibrant culture of Italy would not be a threat, but an opportunity for synergy. I imagine that “il Papa” would likely make room for the underserved, regardless of their place of origin or citizenship, if this was feasible. I would suggest that if Italy were to “welcome Africa” that it would be the direct representation of what Italian culture is all about, and why many, including the author of this post, love it so much and unconditionally – to welcome them would be a continuation of its offering of abundance, a sign of endless generosity. It would be un-Italian to do otherwise.

  20. Nina Burleigh

    Excellent article Anne. In a world of scarcity, climate change and war, with 51 million refugees fleeing mostly violence, those of us in safe, wealthier nations have a human duty to share. It’s that simple.

  21. A beautiful article highlighting our heartfelt desire to have peaceful, successful lives, no matter where we originate. Thank you, Anne, for such an intelligent and informative piece of writing!

  22. Sophia

    Culture or country, we are all humans, brothers and sisters.. Who should all receive the same exact treatment, acceptance, opportunity, freedom, justice, reception, peace, and love. These immigrants feel pain and suffering as we are in our comforts– how can we neglect receiving them for the sake of our own comforts? It is a disgrace to society and to humanity to neglect and reject– and ignore– these people who are the same as we are. Where is it said that one culture, one society is greater than the other? I am in total and complete agreement with Pope Francis, and with your article, Anne– and can only hope and trust that the people of our world who are in stability and comfort will bend down and accept and receive those who are in great suffering… May Gods mercy fall upon all of us to show love to those in need, and may He provide these people with homes and advocates for a future full of hope.

    Thank you for writing this… For raising awareness on a matter of life that is so important.

  23. Anne ,
    Thank you for this heart wrenching but informative look at the effects of the tide of immigrants hitting Italy. The pope, Italian government and your article all reflect an attitude of respect in such a difficult situation. It is a serious situation and as such deserves thoughtful, humane and respectful responses .

  24. Mary Cappiello

    Annie—thank you for your beautifully written and illustrated picture of the situation. This same thing is happening all over the world in so many countries due to poverty, religion and war. People who have been settled or grown up in a country tend to forget that there has been migration for as long as there have been humans. There is no doubt that it is a true strain on the economies of the countries/states that receive these peoples, but they are truly mostly fleeing terrorizing situations and they must be accommodated somehow. We are all in this world together, chaotic, war-torn and unequally wealthy as it is, but we must help these poor refugees. It’s great that Italy is coming up with a plan.

  25. Jennifer Erdmanis

    Hello Anne,
    Thank you for the informative, tragic and beautiful article on Lampedusa. Here in Australia both our major political parties have developed such inhumane policies regarding the asylum seekers who arrive by boat that it makes me feel ashamed to be an Australian. We think that we have such a huge number of so called illegal immigrants that it is almost laughable when one reads articles such as yours which quotes the statistics of people arriving in Lampedusa .
    We do not have any pretty pictures to publish, just heartrending ones of children and adults locked up in detention.Why don’t people learn from history,surely in 2013 we can come up with more humane solutions.

  26. Reading these words was emotionally strong and going to the island and live like you said it was a true and fond experience to me. I followed your “instructions” and suggestions and simply it was a great surprise, much more than expected. We live in such a great country and hidden gems and special people with open hearts and arms.Their hospitality is exactly as described and I visited all the places you mentioned in the pictures as well. Grazie di tutto Annina, sei grande! Yo can really trust this guide and blogger, she is the best and knows every corner of Italy better than we Italian do ;-)

  27. Jeannie

    Anne, Thank you for this very informative article about a small island with a big heart who is dealing with an issue all too common in our world. Our situation in the U.S. with so many children coming in from places where they have been terrorized seemed over-whelming but what we seldom hear is what has been already done. Thousands have been either re-united with family in Miami or placed in other situations where they are welcome and safe. This means those children are here to stay. The people coming into Lampedusa have a more difficult road because of the language barrier and a familiar culture. It will be a great help to them to be staying in places in Italy where they can begin the transition into becoming part of the community. Hats off to Italy and especially Lampedusa for handling this with a heart for the plight of these desperate refugees. And thank you Anne for shining a light on a problem that the world has ignored far too long. There needs to be some humane and sensible solutions for all concerned.

  28. You have uncovered a whole chapter of Italy unknown to me, and you have done this with heartwarming descriptions and bigger than life pictures. Thanks for introducing me to Lampadusa and to the struggles of the refugees.


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