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COVID-free islanders freak out as 2,000 migrants land at the same time

Carlos Gil / GettyROME – Last week, Salvatore Martello, the mayor of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, which is just 8 square kilometers, boasted that his island was almost COVID-free after all of its residents would soon be fully vaccinated, and the islanders panic after more than 2,000 migrants and refugees from completely unvaccinated Africa arrived in smugglers’ boats on Saturday. By Sunday, a total of 20 boats had arrived, carrying about 2,000 desperate souls who had somehow bypassed the Libyan coast guard and made it all the way across the calm seas. Migrants Saved Between Death and Hope at SeaLocal business owners raised concerns about the arrival of mass migrants, which has already put many people off planning their vacation. The owner of the Baja Turchese hotel said he had received several rejections from people who came because they thought the island was COVID-free. “Migrants are changing the dynamic because even if they need to be quarantined and tested, they have already done so and the virus may have brought the virus back to the island,” he told The Daily Beast. But many of the asylum seekers who fled to the island had no choice but to flee the poverty, violence and persecution they faced in their home countries. Most of the migrants had been processed and, as a result of their interviews, were mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, including countries like Eritrea and Somalia that have not yet received a single dose of anti-COVID vaccines. Others were migrant workers who had worked in the oil fields of conflict-ridden Libya, where they suffered from persistent wage theft, discrimination and waves of violent civil war. Because the tiny reception center on the island is not conducive to most social distancing, people were made to sleep on the hot pavement under the scorching sun in the port area to avoid possible infection of the islanders. By Sunday, the migration center was empty for almost two years. “The situation in Lampedusa is literally explosive,” police officer Domenico Pianese said in a statement to local media. “If we have another day like yesterday, with an incessant series of disembarkations, it will not be possible to ensure public safety and health security.” The island, which is closer to North Africa than Europe, has long been a magnet for Migrants who have crashed their rickety blue fishing boats on the rocky shores. The island reached a near break point in 2011 when thousands of people arrived in North Africa before the violence of the Arab Spring. Libya’s “immigrant detention areas” became death camps. But in 2014, when NGO lifeboats patrolled Italy’s state-sponsored mare at Nostrum’s rescue mission ended, boats carrying migrants were often intercepted and rarely reached Lampedusa, which helped the island boost its tourism industry. This summer they were hoping for a godsend with crazy Europeans looking for secluded beaches and guaranteed sun. It is unclear whether Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s recent trip to Libya has in any way changed the Libyan Coast Guard’s response to the recent exodus. Italy trained, funded and provided boats to the Libyan coast guards, despite accusations of horrific human rights violations – and captured on video – including shooting and drowning migrants. When intercepted by Libyan coast guards, migrants are usually taken to filthy detention centers until smugglers working with complicit guards attempt to bring them back across the sea. On Monday, according to UNHCR, the Libyan coast guards prevented around 600 migrants from leaving on several smugglers’ ships. The migrants and refugees who have arrived must all be quarantined and tested, Martello says, and many will be isolated on ferries docked off the island or into the much larger landmass of Sicily. A huge ship is on its way to the island to offer additional accommodation. The majority of the tests should be done by the end of the week. No COVID test results have yet been published. So far this year around 12,000 migrants have made it across the sea to Italy – four times as many as last year in the same period. They either came alone in fishing boats or were rescued by one of only a few NGO boats that were allowed to bring them ashore. Late Monday, the NGO group Alarm Phone, which is trying to alert authorities to boats in trouble, reported that around 400 people languished on boats between Malta and Lampedusa. No one had saved her when it got dark. In April, Italy was criticized by humanitarian groups for ignoring emergency calls from a boat off Libya that eventually capsized. At least 130 people are said to have drowned in this accident. So far this year around 500 migrants have died at sea to get to safety. And they won’t be the last, especially if the group in Lampedusa is seen only as a COVID threat. Read more at The Daily Beast. Do you have a tip? Submit it to The Daily Beast here. Get our top stories in your inbox every day. Sign up now! Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside delves deeper into the stories that matter to you. Learn more.