Interview with Salvatore Martello, Mayor of Lampedusa and Linosa

2 October 2020
Interview with Salvatore Martello, Mayor of Lampedusa and Linosa

This interview is part of our series “#ProgressiveLocalStories”, aiming at raising awareness on the many positive initiatives implemented by progressive cities and regions in Europe in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals. Cities and regions have become laboratories for innovative solutions and, with this series, we want to discover how progressive mayors, councillors and presidents of regions put in place policies to tackle the climate crisis, eradicate social inequalities and build more sustainable communities.


Mr Martello, you are the Mayor of Lampedusa, an island known not only for its natural beauty but also for its commitment at the forefront of hospitality. However, the name of Lampedusa is also linked to a date, that of the 3rd of October.

The date of the 3rd of October 2013 will remain engraved in the minds of the people of Lampedusa, and not only. Shortly before dawn, a boat carrying more than 500 people sank while it was only a few hundred meters away from our coast. More than 360 women, men and children died. It was the most serious hecatomb of migrants that ever took place in the Mediterranean. I remember that day well: the bodies were recovered at sea and laid out on the quay of the port. At first, we did not know how many there were. We only realized the enormous scale of the tragedy when we were told that we had run out of the plastic bags we use to keep the corpses in. It is unacceptable to die like this. 

In the framework of the European project "Snapshots from the borders", which presents the Municipality of Lampedusa and Linosa in the role of a leading body and brings together 35 partners from 13 EU countries (among these 19 islands and border towns, engaged on the front line of reception), we have launched a campaign to ask that the 3rd of October becomes the “European Day of Remembrance and Reception”, in memory of all the victims of migration. If we want to prevent that similar tragedies happen again in the future, we have the duty to cultivate the memory of what happened in the past.

Another objective of the project is to spread a better knowledge of the migratory phenomenon, which is crushed and simplified all too often by the news and the journalistic account with a narrative that reduces everything to the "number of landings". However, "landings", or arrivals at a border, represent only one part of a long journey. Migrations are complex. They must be known in order to be governed first by institutions, and then accepted by the public opinion. This issue should not underlie political tactics but, unfortunately, it has been transformed into a workhorse of some political forces that act, inside and outside the institutions, in an unscrupulous way, to say the least. We need to react to all of this by finally starting to talk about the issue of migration in a constructive way and above all in the unrelated aim of pursuing a consensus.


Building inclusive cities and communities is one of the Sustainable Development Goals. What initiatives have you put in place in your city to include migrants and promote solidarity? Would you have best practices to share with other European cities in this field?

Lampedusa is a particular reality, different from all the rest and at the same time emblematic because it is a real border island. The experience of the Lampedusan community can be an important point of reference for all those other realities that also find themselves having to deal with humanitarian emergencies bigger than themselves. One of the main aspects is precisely this: border territories cannot face extraordinary situations with ordinary tools; they need specific tools, and targeted support from national governments and EU institutions.

One lesson learned from the Covid19 health emergency is that, if we want to support the reception and integration processes, we must at the same time support the local communities that are the first to have to deal with everything that is linked to the arrival of migrants. I will give you a concrete example: if you want your citizens to accept the fact that a government "spends money" on helping and treating migrants arriving in your municipality from a healthcare point of view, you must be able then to provide the resident population with quality health facilities as well. Otherwise, there is the risk of passing on the message that health care "is there for migrants, but not for the local community".


Lampedusa lacks a real hospital. We only have one outpatient clinic, so if you have a health problem that requires specific attention, you cannot call an ambulance, it's an helicopter that will take you to Palermo (Sicily). This of course is just an example, limited to one aspect, but there are many other "side effects" caused by the arrival of migrants in a municipality, which must be taken into consideration from different points of view.

Here in Lampedusa we suffer from the consequences caused by the migrants' boats, after they have been used for the crossing. Many of these boats have sunk in the open sea. As a result, a cemetery of wrecks lies on the seabed across from Lampedusa in the Mediterranean Sea .These wrecks cause extensive damage to our fishing boats and to their nets and equipment. Lately, the migrants' crossings often take place with small boats that, once they have arrived, are kept (and thus accumulated) in the port. They stay there as long as the series of bureaucratic requirements unfold in relation to the seizure by the judicial authorities, and time passes before they are removed. In the meantime, these small boats clog up our port and cause danger for people and other boats, as well as a problem from an environmental point of view.

From a more general point of view, I think that there is a need for clear rules, shared automatisms that allow you not to always find yourself "tackling the emergency". In this sense, in my opinion, we need to start from the contents of the “Global Compact for Migration”, the United Nations document that sets out the principles for “orderly, regular and safe” migration.


Photo credits: Antonello Ravetto Antinori


What are your expectations and demands for a genuine European Union policy on migration and asylum, in light of the European Commission's proposals that were presented last week?

In Lampedusa, we are closely following the ongoing debate on the new EU Pact for Migration and Asylum, which will replace the Dublin regulation and which has reached a very delicate phase. If the recent statements by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, are encouraging (especially when they explicitly reiterate the principle of "saving lives at sea"), I do not see at the moment a shared and clear position on other aspects.

For example, I do not see explicit references for support to border cities and islands that are on the front line of the first reception. Also for this reason, again as part of the "Snapshots from the borders" project, we have created the BTIN ("Border Towns and Islands Network") that is a real network that brings together the voices, requests and proposals of the border territories. It could also make an important contribution to the ongoing debate.

From what we know so far about the new Pact, it proposes to welcome refugees who will have the right to asylum, whereas repatriation is envisaged for the so-called "economic migrants". Nevertheless, if we take the case of Lampedusa, where almost all of the people who disembark fall, in fact, in the category of economic migrants, where should they be hosted during the "12 weeks" that, according to the proposal on the table, will be necessary for the verification of the requirements of each migrant?

I understand that this aspect is left to the discretion of the individual countries of arrival. I nevertheless believe that it must be regulated with shared and automatic mechanisms. Otherwise, there is a risk of burdening even more the cities and border islands that, along the borders Europe, are found to be the "place of arrival" of migratory flows. For this reason, I have defined? the proposal of the Commission that was recently presented as “short-sighted”, a document that risks being limited to statements of principle which, if they do not affect the real dynamics, are destined to remain on the level of “propaganda”. By this, I do not intend to "reject" the Pact. On the contrary, my desire would be to improve it.

I will conclude with a reflection: in the public declarations of some political leaders, especially on the issue of migratory flows, hateful words have been trivialized in such a way that they are now found more and more often in common language, as well as on social networks. We must take into account people's fears and the mistrust and concerns that run through our communities at various levels and that have increased due to the effects of the coronavirus health emergency.

It is a mistake to tolerate intolerance and to not take action in front of those who inject it into our society. We need to explain the truth of things to citizens and to dismantle the mystifications and falsehoods that are all too often told to spread fears and divisions. Efforts must be made to strengthen the values ​​of solidarity and to respect the human and civil rights of each individual, countering the dangerous flurries of social hatred stirred up by the sovereign right that risk jeopardizing the very founding principles of the European Union.


Salvatore Martello is mayor of Lampedusa and Linosa since June 2017. He belongs to the Civic List “Susemuni”.


Photo credits of the header: Unsplash / Enrica Tancioni