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Where are the bodies, Bob?

Bob Geldof told millions of TV viewers that dead African children wash up on a tiny Italian island every day. The island’s mayor says that is 'absolute nonsense'.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Bob Geldof, the tousle-haired rocker turned self-styled spokesman for Africa, is everywhere lately. You can barely open a paper or switch on the box without seeing him explain why the world needs Live 8 (the global gig he and Midge Ure are organising on 2 July), or slating eBay for allowing users to put Live 8 tickets up for auction, or encouraging people to march to Edinburgh to put pressure on the G8 leaders meeting in Gleneagles from 6 to 8 July. He has a glossy new coffee-table book out called Geldof in Africa, and his BBC TV programme of the same name kicked off on Monday. ‘Africa is quite simply the most extraordinary, beautiful and luminous place on our planet’, Geldof told BBC viewers.

But, for me, one comment recently made by Geldof stands out more than any other. On Friday Night With Jonathan Ross on BBC 1 on 10 June, he told a hushed studio audience, and millions of viewers, about an island off Italy where ‘thousands’ of dead Africans – men, women and children fleeing poverty in makeshift boats – have washed up on the beaches.

‘There’s an island called Lampedusa, near Sicily’, he said, and recently ‘the mayor of Lampedusa was asking the [Italian] mainland to send cargo ships to pick up the dead bodies of African children that were washing up daily on his beaches’. There are so many corpses, said Geldof, that the mayor of Lampedusa had ‘no room left on his island to bury them – not in the graveyards, he had no room left on his island, no room left in any of the fields, to bury the mothers and dads and the children that were washing up daily on his beaches, these people trying to get to a better life, thousands of them’. The mainland authorities had started ‘sending cargo ships, to fill up the ships with bodies’, Geldof said.

For Geldof, this story just about summed up the tragedy of Africa. ‘This can’t go on’, he said. ‘It can’t go on. It’s a broken world.’ Even Jonathan Ross was left speechless for once, while the studio audience applauded Geldof’s passionate description of African immigrants’ plight. It conjured up a powerful and shocking image, of desperate Africans tossed around by the choppy Mediterranean waters and washing up dead on an island that is an upmarket tourist destination for the Italian middle classes. But how accurate was Geldof’s description? Not accurate at all, according to the mayor of Lampedusa.

A spokesman for the mayor describes as ‘absolute nonsense’ the claim that Lampedusa is so packed with dead immigrants that it has no room left to bury anymore. ‘There are 15 immigrants buried in the Christian graveyard in Lampedusa’, he says. He also denies that dead bodies wash up on the shores of Lampedusa ‘daily’. There have been tragedies where immigrants have died en route from North Africa to Lampedusa, but he says the dead immigrants tend to be in boats, not washed-up corpses on beaches. ‘The dead immigrants arrive in the same boats as the living’, he claims. ‘The worst tragedy happened a few years ago when a boat was intercepted with 15 corpses and some survivors. On that occasion the corpses were sent to Rome where mass was celebrated in their honour. The most recent case of immigrants who arrived dead was in May 2005. There were two bodies and they were sent to Favara [in Sicily] on two hearses on board a ferry.’ So bodies don’t wash up on the beaches of Lampedusa on a daily basis? ‘No.’

He says the mayor ‘categorically denies’ that he asked the Italian mainland to send cargo ships to pick up dead bodies, as Geldof claimed. A spokesperson at the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Rome, which oversees immigration matters across Italy, tells me there is no record of a request from the mayor of Lampedusa for cargo ships to be dispatched to recover corpses.

Lampedusa certainly has what they call an ‘immigration problem’. It is a tiny island, about 20 square kilometres, and is closer to Africa than Italy – described as a speck in the Mediterranean sea, it is 113 kilometres from Tunisia and 205 kilometres from the coast of Sicily. It is a tourist resort renowned for its unspoiled beaches and deep-sea diving opportunities. And because it is one of the closest parts of the European Union to North Africa it is often also the first port of call for Africans hoping to make their way to a better life in Europe. Each week, scores of ‘illegal immigrants’ – from North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and even some from the Middle East – arrive by boat in Lampedusa and other small Italian islands, and also in Sicily, hoping to move from there into Europe proper.

According to the BBC, between 1 January and 15 September 2004, a total of 9,666 immigrants were caught illegally entering the Sicily region of Italy, which includes Lampedusa (1). Gregory White of the Center for International Studies at the University of Southern California says that the majority of immigrants who arrive in tiny Lampedusa are sent by officials to processing centres in Sicily; there, most of them are given expulsion orders that give them 15 days to leave the country, which they tend to do by moving on to the European mainland – again by taking risks – rather than going back to Africa (2). Others are kept in a ‘reception centre’ in Lampedusa, a very overcrowded and controversial institution. It is built to hold 200, but according to Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) it holds many more than that. An Italian news agency reported yesterday – 22 June – that a further 310 immigrants had arrived in Lampedusa over the previous 24 hours, bumping up the numbers in the reception centre to 866 (3). Both MSF and Amnesty International have criticised the treatment of immigrants in Lampedusa and at other holding centres across Italy.

This movement of people from North Africa to Europe, often on small and overcrowded wooden boats, can end tragically. Boats sink, or some of the immigrants die of exhaustion or dehydration before they reach Lampedusa or Sicily. Yet even those NGOs critical of the Italian authorities’ treatment of asylum seekers dispute the claims made by Geldof about scores of dead bodies washing up in places like Lampedusa.

Medecins Sans Frontieres is one of few charities with a presence in Lampedusa. It has a doctor, a nurse and a cultural mediator working on the island, who have an agreement with the authorities that they will be called whenever an immigrant boat arrives in the harbour. When I asked a spokesperson for the Italian section of MSF whether the Lampedusa-based team ever reported that African men, women and children were washing up on the beaches on a daily basis, she said: ‘No, we never heard about this. We have no evidence for this.’ Has she heard reports of any corpses washing up on the beaches? ‘I haven’t heard this. Perhaps you are confusing it with something else?’

She says that occasionally the MSF team greets boats that have dead bodies among the survivors, the last time being a month ago, when two dead men were found on board a boat (which is presumably the same incident mentioned above by the mayor’s spokesman). She says it is unlikely that corpses would wash up on Lampedusa because when corpses are discarded from boats, it tends to take place far out at sea. She explains: ‘From interviews with immigrants, we know that if someone dies and they are still far from Lampedusa, they throw the body overboard. This might seem shocking, but the boats are very overcrowded and the journey is long. However, if someone dies near to Lampedusa, they keep the body on board, so that it can be dealt with more respectfully when they reach harbour.’

What about claims that there are so many dead immigrants on Lampedusa that the mayor has nowhere left to bury them? Again, she has heard nothing about this. She has heard reports, however, that the authorities in Lampedusa are considering extending the island’s graveyard, to include a special section in which those immigrants who arrive dead can be buried. Does she know how many immigrants have been buried in the graveyard to date? ‘No. I think it would be a small number. Fifty or 100, I would guess.’ (The mayor’s spokesman said 15.)

If both the authorities in Lampedusa and critics of their asylum policy dispute the claim that dead bodies of African children are washing up daily on Lampedusa, where did Geldof get his story from? His spokesperson tells me he saw it in the Italian paper La Repubblica while he was in Italy at the end of May. A search of La Repubblica’s archives for May and June brings up a steady stream of news reports about Lampedusa – about the arrival of more and more immigrants; the sinking of a boat in the Sicilian Channel, 155 miles from Lampedusa, in which two people died, 14 went missing, and 11 were rescued; and the sinking of a boat off the coast of Libya, which was presumed to be heading for Lampedusa, in which 14 died, six were rescued and three are missing, presumed dead (that incident was dealt with by the Libyan authorities). There is no mention in the paper’s recent archives of corpses washing up on Lampedusa every day or of bodies buried everywhere on the island.

Geldof’s spokesperson later says that he might have read it in a different paper. ‘Look, maybe the way he said it made it sound like there are thousands of bodies washing up on this island all the time, I don’t know’, she says. ‘The point he’s trying to make’, she continues, ‘is that we should care more. There are terrible things happening on our doorstep’. Terrible things do indeed happen in Africa. But what purpose is served by making those things sound even more terrible than they are? By talking about the movement of immigrants in often hazardous journeys from North Africa to Europe as African mothers and children washing up daily on European beaches in this ‘broken world’ of ours? Is it that Geldof and others involved in Live 8 believe we will only care more if Africa is presented to us in the most lurid (and, it would seem, sometimes inaccurate) way possible? You could argue that the immigrants who risk it all to get from Africa to Europe are showing great courage and initiative, only to be thwarted by fearful European authorities at the other end. Yet in Geldof’s vocabulary they become yet more African victims who need we in the West to care for them.

Who knows where Geldof got the story about dead Africans on the beaches of Lampedusa from. And perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that there seems to be little hard evidence to back up his claims – despite the elevation of Geldof, Bono and others to the status of unofficial spokesmen for Africa, these are hardly world authorities on African affairs and events. What is more worrying, however, is that nobody has challenged Geldof over what he said. The only criticism I have seen was in the Spectator, where TV critic James Delingpole bemoaned Geldof’s ‘lachrymose homily, which got a huge cheer from the audience unfortunately’ on a TV show (Friday Night With Jonathan Ross) ‘normally characterised by its flipness, brazenness and irreverence’ (4). Other than that, Geldof’s facts have not been interrogated and his claims that ‘African children were washing up daily on [Lampedusa’s] beaches’ have gone unchallenged.

It seems that some see Geldof as being beyond criticism and interrogation, switching off their critical faculties and nodding along whenever Saint Bob speaks for Africa. In the report of the Commission for Africa, chaired by Tony Blair and of which Geldof is a member (indeed, some refer to it as ‘Bob Geldof’s Commission’), it says: ‘Our starting point is to tell the truth about Africa.’ Surely that means sticking to the facts?

Special thanks to Michele Ledda and Dominic Standish for assistance with translation.

(1) See Many drown as migrant ship sinks, BBC News, 4 October 2004

(2) ‘A Political Economy of North African Immigration to Europe’, Gregory White, Center for International Studies, University of Southern California, 20 November 1997

(3) Immigration: New crisis at Lampedusa, 866 in visitors’ centre, AGI Online, 22 June 2005

(4) Bottling out, James Delingpole, Spectator, 18 June 2005

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Topics Politics

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