On October 3, 2013, an overcrowded ship caught fire en route from Libya to Europe and capsized in the Strait of Sicily. More than 350 people were killed. The individuals on board—hailing in the main from Eritrea, Ghana and Somalia—had each paid over 1,000 euros to traffickers to secure their passage. These people, without exception, were fleeing debt, war and poverty. But they were also moving consciously towards something: an idea of peace, of safety, of a roof, of dignity. Deaths in the central Mediterranean had been steadily rising in the years leading up to the events of that autumn.
The first major wave of refugees began in 2011, when NATO forces ousted Muammar Gaddafi from power in Libya using Sicily as an airbase. This tragedy, however, stood out among other, smaller, capsizes. Given the size of the death toll, public officials began to talk openly about an urgent, and growing, humanitarian emergency along Europe’s southern borders. In a matter of days hundreds of journalists set up camp in the port of Lampedusa, a quiet fishing town on a small island to the south of Sicily. From there they broadcast footage around the world of dead bodies, terrified children and masked figures in white overalls. These were the origins of Europe’s so-called “refugee crisis.”
More than 170,000 individuals made the crossing from North Africa into Sicily in 2014. They arrived at a tense moment. That year, Sicily, like much of Italy, was in the midst of a profound economic crisis. At a regional level, the situation was comparable to that of Greece. Unemployment was at 22 percent, rising to 52 percent among young people, and a third of families were living in a state of poverty. Unsurprisingly the local authorities struggled to cope with this new influx of people. In many cases the refugees were left in limbo. The state placed unaccompanied minors in holding facilities which were lacking in specialized medical staff; older migrants were forced to wait interminably for asylum documents, for permits to stay and work.
The scale of this problem, though, and its coincidence with the economic crisis, inaugurated a new era in Italian politics. Initially the government’s response seemed promising. In 2013, following the tragedy in the sea around Lampedusa, a center-left coalition, led by Matteo Renzi, authorized a rescue mission named “Operation Mare Nostrum,” which permitted the Italian coastguard to venture into international waters to assist all boats in difficulty. While this was a small-scale initiative, and other forms of aid were sorely lacking, it nevertheless saved 150,000 lives in 2013–14. The mission, though, was short-lived. EU member states refused to provide further funding to support an operation which, they argued, constituted a “pull factor” and which would encourage more people to make the treacherous journey.
Over the following years, the European Commission gradually shifted their priorities from the need for “search and rescue” missions to “border policing.” In 2014 Operation Mare Nostrum was replaced by an EU Frontex–funded initiative called “Triton” which obliged the coastguard to limit their rescues to a narrower area of water. Over the next two years, as a result of this, deaths in the central Mediterranean spiked to an all-time high of 7,000 people. Still, some politicians called for a further tightening of borders. On the Italian mainland Matteo Salvini, the head of the Lega, began to demand tougher measures to stop people from setting out on these journeys. He quickly began to rise in the polls.
In an effort to appease his growing base the center-left began to deport hundreds of individuals, but this served little function other than to alienate many of their own supporters. In 2018 the Italians elected Salvini to government where, as a minor coalition partner, he took on the role of interior minister. While he was ousted the following year, during a botched attempt to seize the majority for the Lega, he used his short time in office to order the total closure of all of Italy’s ports and, in June that year, forbid any refugees from disembarking on Italian soil.
Throughout these grim developments Sicilians have consistently opposed the callousness of the political class. Despite the limitations imposed by the EU, for example, fishermen based in Sicily’s southern ports like Augusta and Pozzallo have continued to rescue people in international waters, and many residents in those towns have taken refugees into their own homes. While around 30 percent of mainland Italians plan to vote for the Lega in the future (as of winter 2020) their support on the island is just 5 percent. Nevertheless, this has not been a peaceful period. In 2014 thousands of Sicilians took to the streets under the banner of forconi (the pitchforks), to protest against European austerity measures. The protesters, who were comprised of various precarious peoples, from logistics and factory workers to farmers and the young unemployed, rioted for several months and blocked the island’s motorways.Sicily’s future might indeed be more tolerant and more ethnically and culturally diverse than any time in its recent past.
One of their main demands was for an Italian exit from the EU. Fascist groups like CasaPound attempted to capitalize on the unrest, blaming the refugees for the economic crisis, but they failed to galvanize considerable support. Instead, 48 percent of Sicilians gravitated towards the Five Star Movement (M5S), a populist “anti-establishment” force which came to power as part of the 2018 coalition, and which has promised to “clean up” Italian politics by instigating a “direct democratic” revolution. This party is problematic to put it mildly. Its parliamentarians have perpetuated various conspiracy theories over the years, in particular those propagated by the global anti-vaccine lobby, and many of its representatives in Rome have close links to the Lega. Nevertheless, the nature of this grassroots movement marks a shift from the Berlusconi years.
In the 90s and early 00s, Sicilians were, on the surface, happy to capitulate uncritically with neoliberalism. Today, thousands are actively pledging their support for a force that, in theory if not in practice, has promised to end precarious labor practices, tackle inequality and confront the climate emergency.
The most promising developments in current Sicilian politics, though, are taking place at a local and municipal level. It’s here that civil society groups are most successfully integrating the struggle for migrant rights with those of the island’s official residents. Leoluca Orlando, the mayor of Palermo, has had an important role in this. In 2014, as refugee boats began to increase in frequency, he decided to demilitarize the city’s port and transformed the seafront into an event space which, through a series of talks, concerts and art exhibitions, has been promoting “cultural dialogue.”
As EU leaders argued about pull factors, Orlando made the case that those attempting to close borders should be put on “a new Nuremberg trial” for the massacre they were condoning. In 2015 Orlando began to argue for the abolition of residency permits across the EU to ensure that economic migrants, who often fail to qualify for asylum, can have access to welfare services. To reinforce this demand his administration introduced a “Palermo card,” a hypothetical document which outlined the holder’s moral right to free movement.
In recognition of this, the local government began granting residency to new arrivals even where they did not fit the criteria determined by the national rules in Rome. Despite the severity of economic crisis, many Palermitans supported this stance. Orlando was re-elected to serve his fifth (non-consecutive) mandate in 2017 with a comfortable majority. Since then, he has continued to oppose the rightward turn in Italian politics. He has, among other things, created a bureaucratic loophole which protects migrants’ rights to access education and health care and which guarantees all people forced to occupy buildings, whether documented or not, access to water and energy.
Most dramatically of all, when Salvini made his decision to close the ports in 2018 Orlando simply refused to obey the edict, declaring: “Palermo in ancient Greek meant ‘complete port.’ We have always welcomed rescue boats and vessels who saved lives at sea. We will not stop now.” Other mayors, in Syracuse and Lampedusa, quickly followed suit.
These principled, defiant leaders are helping re-energize Sicily’s civil society. After decades of sporadic struggle against Cosa Nostra, the islanders are mobilizing, with increasing confidence, to call for democracy, economic justice and the recognition of universal human rights. The best example of this can be seen in Ballarò, Palermo’s old Arab souk. For much of the 20th century this area was a hotbed of mafia activity. Since 2013, however, it has come to develop its own distinctive democratic culture. It’s a place where many of the most progressive aspects of Sicilian history—its cosmopolitanism, innovative grassroots movements and hybrid artistic creativity—are re-emerging in the present day.
The community itself is remarkably mixed. About 35 percent of Ballarò’s residents are of migrant backgrounds and include people from Ghana, Gambia, Nigeria, Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Mauritius as well as Romanians, Bulgarians and generations of Sicilians. At least 25 languages are regularly spoken in the area. The main businesses are fruit and vegetable stalls, bakeries and street food stands. Thanks to the new influx of migrants, though, the corner shops are, for the first time since Spanish rule, overflowing with African and Middle Eastern ingredients such as aromatized waters, freekeh and manioc. The residents are working together to renovate houses and public spaces. In recent years they’ve set up barbers and laundrettes, sports facilities and art studios.
The area is home to a social center, Porco Rosso, which, among other activities, assists new arrivals with residency and welfare applications and provides free language lessons. MoltiVolti, a self-described “Siculo-ethnic” restaurant and co-working space, promotes fusion food and affordable collective dining as a means of encouraging social mixing. Their founders describe the neighborhood as “a laboratory” that “represents all the elements of the future society.”Sicily has thrived most when it has looked outward, openly, to the rest of the world.
If Ballarò is anything to go by, Sicily’s future might indeed be more tolerant and more ethnically and culturally diverse than any time in its recent past. Whether this will be sustainable in the long term, of course, will depend on whether more powerful political actors can step in to defend the experiment from the threat of criminal violence which, unfortunately, remains a serious problem. In 2016 a mafioso named Emanuele Rubino shot a Gambian student, Yusupha Susso, in the head, not far from the market. Fortunately, Susso survived, though he was left in a temporary coma from which he is still recovering. While the incident itself was horrific, the local community’s reaction gives some cause for optimism.
In the past, acts like these were commonplace and, in most cases, met with silence. Following the attack against Susso, however, many residents and traders took to the streets to speak out. Some of them went even further. In 2017 ten Bengali shopkeepers and a Tunisian vendor who had previously been handing over protection money to Cosa Nostra refused to make further payments. Supported by a grassroots anti-mafia group called Addiopizzo, these individuals took the brave step of denouncing Rubino to the police along with a number of his associates. In April 2019, thanks to their efforts, the courts condemned Rubino and eight other men who ran rackets in the market to a combined total of sixty years in prison for the crimes of extortion, mafia membership and racial discrimination.
This example alone demonstrates how much the Sicilian capital has changed in the past decade. After centuries of adhering to the tacit law of omertà, local residents, both old and new, are working, in dialogue with state institutions, to transform society from the bottom up. In the past decade more than 650,000 refugees have arrived in Sicily. While the vast majority of them have moved on to Northern Italy and other countries to meet family members or find better work prospects, some have put down roots on the island.
This is not just limited to Palermo. Across Sicily migrants are transforming the social fabric of the island. In Catania, groups of Gambian citizens are working to renovate the neighborhood of San Berillo which the local administration had previously abandoned to squalor and decay. In medium-sized cities like Messina, Syracuse and Trapani, migrant-led associations are organizing protests against the poor conditions in refugee camps, in an effort to call out mafia involvement in the sector and ensure new arrivals can become active protagonists in shaping the future of life on the island.
Across the countryside families are adopting child refugees and, with the assistance of EU funds, are teaching them the skills they will need to contribute to civil society. The very presence of these young Africans and Asians is giving new life to underpopulated parts of the interior that, as a result of generations of emigration, were previously struggling to survive. As one resident of Sutera, a crumbling hillside village, recently put it: “We have been dealing with integration for 2,000 years … if then Sutera was the ‘salvation’ for many foreigners, well, guess what? Today, the true salvation of Sutera is the refugees.”
These developments are remarkable in their own right. They’re even more profound when considered in the larger arc of this island’s history. For centuries Sicilians have struggled to assert their autonomy in the face of Catholic monoculture, Italian nationalism, fascism and organized crime. Now, as a new migrant population begins to establish itself, they have begun to envisage a different kind of society. Inevitably, many people still see Sicily as a frontier between Europe and Africa. The history and present of the island, though, show how limiting this kind of logic is. Throughout its ancient and medieval past, but also during its fraught modernity, Sicily has thrived most when it has looked outward, openly, to the rest of the world.
From The Invention of Sicily: A Mediterranean History by Jamie Mackay. Used with the permission of the publisher, Verso Books. Copyright © 2021 by Jamie Mackay.