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'Lessons from Lampedusa: a sea change is needed to prevent further tragedies'

Lampedusa is on our minds again.

For a while that symbolic island had faded, after the trauma of early 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring, when the welcome centre failed to cope and thousands of Tunisians huddled on the rocky bluffs above the town. By late March that year they outnumbered the local population. Rome could have sent boats to take them to the mainland or Sicily. But for two months nothing happened. International media swarmed to the refugee camp on Europe's doorstep. Silvio Berlusconi descended to announce the rescue operation. Afterwards, Lampedusa's then-mayor, Bernardino De Rubeis, told me it was a deliberate strategy proposed to him by the ex-prime minister: "Deliberately, a tragic moment was created so that Europe would wake up to the problem. I am convinced of this and I take responsibility for it."

As mayor, the bear-like, bearded De Rubeis was even then under investigation on bribery and corruption charges. In the intervening period his star has fallen. In May 2012, his term as local leader ended. In July, he was sentenced by a court in Sicily to five years and three months in prison.

The mayor has changed and Lampedusa - indeed the story of migration into Europe - has now found another tragic moment. No-one would argue this one was "created" like the 2011 crisis. But since more than 300 Eritreans drowned when their boat caught fire and sank within sight of shore in the early hours of October 2, the island of hope/horror has been back on Europe's conscience. The call from Rome is exactly the same as it was two years ago: "This is a European problem. Italy can't be left to cope on its own."

So why are we back at this Groundhog Day moment? Was the 2011 strategy a failure? Did Italy not get help from Europe after it incubated a crisis?

The answer is: yes it did. Italy has been given extra funds in recognition of the fact that it shoulders more of the burden for migrants and refugees' first arrival. Just six days after the October 3 tragedy, the EU sanctioned an emergency payment of €30 million.

Dare we ask whether this EU policy of throwing money at its southerly member states - not only Italy - is working? We must, says Georges Alexandre, a French-Canadian activist who has devoted the past three years of his life to an extraordinary voyage aimed at highlighting the plight of the migrants. I first met Alexandre on Lampedusa in May 2011. He had gone there in November 2010 to circumnavigate the island by kayak in what he termed "a gesture of solidarity".

The 45-year-old former office worker then decided to embark from Tunisia on a 3500-kilometre Kayak for the Right to Life ending at the European Parliament in Brussels. More than two years on, he is still going. From Sfax in Tunisia he has kayaked via the migration hotspots of Lampedusa, Malta and the southern coast of Sicily, up the Italian boot to the Cote d'Azur. I spoke to him as he laid up in his tent at Marseille on Friday. His funds are running out, he is plagued by logistical problems, but in the next week he will take his five-metre boat up the mouth of the Rhone, hoping to reach Brussels via rivers and canals by Christmas.

He will arrive with a petition calling for the creation of an entirely new EU body, an organisation for the Management of Immigration and Asylum Claims. This would place in joint hands the responsibility both for ensuring safety of migrants at sea, and administering asylum claims. Of those two areas, currently only the first is being tackled jointly, in the form of a new satellite surveillance system, Eurosur. Alexandre echoes the view expressed by other campaigners: it is both unworkable and hypocritical to separate the safety of so-called irregular migrants at sea from their subsequent reception on land. A fully joined-up body is the only realistic solution, he claims, in order to prevent the lapses and alleged abuse of migrant rights which currently take place under systems operated by each member state.

He has gathered support. In Rome last September he obtained an unlikely ally in the form of Italian senator, Giacomo Santini, from Berlusconi's Forza Italia party. His petition's 600 signatures are hardly overwhelming, but Alexandre is convinced popular pressure will force Europe's politicians to act: "It's the people who are not prepared to let these tragedies continue," he told me. "The politicians just look out for themselves. It's the people who are going to force them to act."

l Tony Garner is an Edinburgh-based freelance journalist and writer with special interest in migration issues

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