Giusi Nicolini, the Nobel Prize-nominated, Olof Palme Prize-winning and UNESCO-recognised mayor of Lampedusa, Italy, has been voted out of office. On June 11 2017 she came in third place in the island’s municipal elections, with just 908 votes.
The news went way beyond the borders of this migrant-flooded Mediterranean community of 6,000, which in recent years has found itself at the centre of Europe’s refugee crisis.
“An Italian mayor won an international award for helping migrants. Then she lost her job,” exclaimed one Washington Post headline.
Domestic and international media grieved Nicolini as a fallen heroine, a local champion repudiated by her own people. And the Lampedusians, who were instrumental in Nicolini’s rise as a humanitarian star, were denigrated and vilified, deemed ignorant, backward and racist.
A moral community but arbitrary detention
Since her election as mayor in 2012, Nicolini has fed into an Italian narrative about Lampedusa as the ideal, moral community.
She courted and embraced the media with steadfast zeal, becoming a staple on Italian TV programs. She spoke about how, despite its size and the harsh conditions it faces, Lampedusa chooses to welcome immigrants because it is the right thing to do.
This largely quelled criticism of the bad treatment migrants actually receive in Lampedusa, where they are detained in a centre in Contrada Imbriacola referred to as “the Hotspot”.
The human rights committee of the Italian senate has criticised the facility, suggesting that it denies some migrants the right to asylum. Since the centre is designed for very short stay (a maximum of 48 hours), it provides no activities in-house and access only to basic services.
But many people are held for much longer, even exceeding 30 days. And this, the report concludes, violates the fundamental right of freedom from arbitrary detention.
The immigrant detention centre has also been taken to task by the Italian human rights law expert Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo. In a 2012 book, he denounced the centre for its unlawful detention, use of forced returns, and, in previous years, push-back operations from neighbouring waters.
He recently reiterated these concerns:
The treatment of migrants in Lampedusa is often worse, in fact, than in other parts of Italy, and the situation, experts Glenda Garelli and Martina Tazzioli say, did not improve with the introduction of the EU’s “hotspot approach”. Conditions and procedures continue to fall below acceptable human rights standards.
Exotic, pure and backward
Generally, Lampedusians have been portrayed in Italy as an exotic, pure island community; as “noble savages” untainted by civilisation, more humane, generous and hospitable than the rest of us.
Unknowingly, they have become part of what the human rights and migration expert Paolo Cuttitta called lo spettacolo del confine”, a “political spectacle” with “Lampedusa being the theatre of the border play’” (his translation).
In the public imagination, Lampedusians were an exceptional community. This narrative, which Guisi Nicolini steadily spread across Italy and abroad, caught like a spark in a dry haystack. Others began feeding the fire.
In it, Lampedusians are depicted as a backward people, reminiscent of the Italian peasant in the early 1900s.
I was on fieldwork in Lampedusa when the Italian national broadcaster RAI aired Fuocoammare for the first time in October 2016, and I watched the film in the main square there.
Amid the celebratory tone, there was also an acute sense of disappointment in town. As I walked that evening with a Lampedusian friend, I could sense his jilted sense of pride.
I put on a brave face: It was nice to see Lampedusa on the big screen.
He raised his eyebrows: Yes, it was.
“But why did Rosi show us in this way to the world?” he asked.
“Have you ever seen my son eat spaghetti in that way?” he added quickly, referring to a scene where a little boy, depicted as wild and free (he runs barefoot around the island) is seen slurping away at a plate of pasta.
A shared repudiation
This view changed when the Lampedusians voted out Nicolini. After the election the media so universally repudiated the people of Lampedusa that it almost seemed like an orchestrated response.
Here are some headlines from June 12 2017:
“Lampedusa fires Mayor Nicolini, symbol of hospitality and winner of the UNESCO peace prize” (La Stampa); “UNESCO prize winner Nicolini loses Lampedusa election” (European Post); “Lampedusa rebukes Giusi Nicolini, the symbolic mayor of migrants” (Affari Italiani).
A spray-painted message, quickly removed by other Lampedusians, made the rounds, too. It read: Grazie avete estirpato il cancro Lampedusano (Thank you for removing the Lampedusian cancer).
Everyone was trying to understand what had happened in Lampedusa; baseless analyses mushroomed. Some claimed that the problem was a lack of respect for the law, implying that the mayor had ruffled feathers.
Others alleged that her defeat was friendly fire from Pietro Bartolo, a Lampedusian who has also been internationally feted for championing migration.
Nicolini herself cited jealousy, claiming that her opponents accused her of “aspiring to more awards and accolades instead of addressing the issues that are dear to the inhabitants of Lampedusa and Linosa.”
The real local issues
I shall refrain from conducting yet another analysis of the election results.
Instead, I refer readers to the diligent analysis of the Lampedusian collective Askavusa, tellingly titled The elections in Lampedusa: An inevitable short circuit. It argues that Nicolini was ousted for reasons that have nothing to do with migration. That she lost because of maladministration of the island.
From the lack of potable water and the irregular outsourcing of the waste management to a private company that mistreats its (Lampedusian) employees, voters took many concerns to the polls on June 11. Under Nicolini’s watch, the island had also seen unsanctioned construction, rampant nepotism and militarisation.
There’s nothing radical about people choosing their mayor based on local governance issues rather than global ones. But false constructions, it seems, make for better headlines.
This is what happens when a place becomes a symbol. This community of islanders was reified for moral purposes, its people commodified for political, cultural and economic gain.
In a convoluted way, this isn’t unlike the vilification and dehumanisation that contributes to the terrible treatment of undocumented migrants worldwide. No one, including the Lampedusians, deserves it.