Each time a boat comes in to the wharf in the coastal town of Pozzallo, Sicily, Mayor Luigi Ammatuna stands ready with his Mayor chain in red, white and blue to greet the migrants and refugees. “I want to show that the entire town is excited that they have made it here, and I want to show them the respect that they deserve”, the mayor says.
This spring turned out just as he feared. When the Italian-led rescue operation Mare Nostrum was closed down before Christmas, the mayor Pozzallo knew that fewer boats would be out rescuing migrants seeking safety in Europe. He feared more would die at sea. So far this year, more than 1,600 people have drowned in the Mediterranean.
“The rescue operation Mare Nostrum ensured that many were rescued quickly. When it was closed down, I became worried that several refugees would arrive dead in our harbor,” tells Ammatuna.
High season for boat migrants
The first Mayor Ammatuna does in the morning is to open the window to breath the fresh sea air.
“No day can start without it”, he says.
But the sight of the waves and the smell of sea air reminds Ammatuna that "high season" for boat refugees, from April to October, is underway. During operation Mare Nostrum the number of people who took the sea route across the Mediterranean increased. Over 220,000 came this way in 2014.
The mayor says things were better when the search and rescue operation was active. “With Mare Nostrum there were more people arriving, but we supported it because it saved people in need”.
City in solidarity
Ammatuna has never experienced the residents of Pozzallo complaining about his positive attitude to migrants”, he says, adding:
“We decided early on that Pozzallo should be a city in solidarity with those who had fled and who had survived the crossing to Sicily”.
He will never forget the day in June 2014, when he was told to prepare to receive a boat of migrants, including 45 people who had not survived the deadly crossing.'
“It was a boat with 45 people who had suffocated because of lack of air. It was a terrible sight. I saw the broken bodies, it's a sight I'll never forget”, says Ammatuna, who was dressed in blue, red and white for the occasion to show that not only the city of Pozzallo, but the whole nation had come to pay their respect to the dead.
Ammatuna is glad that Europe is now engaging in the situation in the Mediterranean. “Italy is no longer alone. But it is a problem that people who need protection cannot seek asylum in Europe without having to travel across the Mediterranean in dangerous boats”, he says.
“I think there is a need for a humanitarian bridge to Europe, where people could apply for residency in Europe before they started the journey”.
The mayor says he will continue to stand by the harbour every time a boat comes in. Also those who arrive with dead migrants on board.
“It is important to show this respect. Not only to those who have lost their lives, but also to their families. There is a reason why these people have embarked on this journey. Preferably, I'd be a mayor for refugees who have escaped war and misery, not a mayor who receives dead people”.