Lampedusa: the gate of Europe, the heart of Europe

Lampedusa: the gate of Europe, the heart of Europe

At times you need to reach to the gate of Europe to see the continent’s best face. I am writing from Teheran, where I arrived last night at the end on a beautiful and intense day in Lampedusa, a small island to the south of Sicily. The day had started onboard the Cavour aircraft carrier, the flagship of Operation Sophia, which has been saving lives and hunting human traffickers in the Mediterranean since last summer.

It has been a year since the tragedy in the strait of Sicily, when more than eight hundred people lost their lives. That was the turning point in our efforts to involve the whole of Europe in dealing with the crisis at our borders. On the shame for that disaster – and for the indifference our continent had shown before it – we managed to build something good. After the tragedy we set up Operation Sophia, which since then has arrested 68 traffickers, seized a hundred boats and saved 13,000 human lives from the water, including 800 hundred children. Among them was little Sophia, who was born onboard one of our ships, gave the name to the operation and is now safe and sound inside Europe together with her mother.

We can be proud of all this, this is our Europe – and the European flag flies atop the Cavour, together with the Italian flag. I thanked rear admiral Enrico Credendino, who leads the Operation, for the many saved lives, and I thanked all the military personnel: they come from 24 European countries and show the best of Europe – a Union that builds peace and solidarity, not walls.

Straight afterwards on the island of Lampedusa, together with my friend the mayor, Giusi Nicolini, I paid respect to all the lives we couldn’t save. We laid a flower on a monument overlooking the sea: it is called “Gate of Lampedusa, gate of Europe,” and it reminds us that all who arrive here arrive in our Union. The responsibility of welcoming them belongs to the whole of us, not only to the Italians and the Sicilians.

The people of Lampedusa have done and keep doing so much, to welcome those who arrive here with nothing in their pockets. With mayor Nicolini we visited the Lampedusa welcoming centre: over there the Italian, European and international institutions work together with the civil society to provide everyone with food, clothes and healthcare, but also to give a smile and some peace to the little kids.

These stories of welcoming have been told by film-maker Gianfranco Rosi – who was in Lampedusa yesterday for a screening in the island’s main square. I met him together with the people he filmed in his Fuocoammare documentary. The Golden Bear he was awarded with was a tribute to the whole island, and to all Europeans who are doing what they can to welcome refugees and to keep our values alive. Doctors and armed forces, film-makers and fishermen, humanitarian workers and simple citizens. We have a duty to tell their stories. But first of all we have a duty to support this Europe, to find the meaning of our Union, together.