06-19-2011 by Linda S. Carbonell
Seventy miles northwest Tunisia is the 7.8 square mile island of Lampedusa, the southern-most portion of Italy. The normal population of the island is around 4,500 souls who mostly survive on fishing the relatively shallow waters between the island and the north coast of Africa. Historically, the island has been a stop-over point for navies and air forces as far back as ships have sailed the Mediterranean.
Unfortunately, as the nearest foreign soil to North Africa, it is also a favorite destination for people fleeing persecution and revolution. It is closer to Tunisia than Cuba is to Florida and a lot safer to sail to. When the Tunisian revolution began last December, Lampedusa was the refuge of choice for foreign workers fleeing Tunisia. Then, when the Libyan rebellion began, Lampedusa was simply overwhelmed.
On Sunday, the head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, arrived on Lampedusa and was joined a few hours later by UNHCR envoy Angelina Jolie. Jolie had spent the weekend visiting camps set up in Turkey for Syrian refugees.
Guterres thanked the people of Lampedusa, for whom being a transfer point for tens of thousands fleeing North Africa in the past six months has been an arduous task. He then offered a few observations about the political climate in Europe, where debates are raging over the high number of immigrants that have entered the continent from the Muslim world. He said that the number of migrants who have arrived in Europe “doesn’t correspond to the reality” of the number who have acutally gone elsewhere. In the past six months, the greatest number of refugees have been men and women who had contracted to work in Tunisia and Libya from countries all over the globe. What they have needed most is a means of returning to their homes. Many have arrived in sites like Lampedusa without proper documents for crossing international borders. Lampedusa is only one landing point for the tens of thousands who have evacuated Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria. Turkey is barely keeping track of the thousands who are fleeing the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on protesters. Coping with the flood of humans arriving with nothing but what they carry has become a major crisis across the Mediterranean.
As a UNHCR envoy, Jolie has been closer in activity to George Clooney than to the kind of celebrity advocates for third world causes who fly in for photo ops and leave. Usually accompanied by no one other than a translator, Jolie visits the women and children in camps and on the road, climbing up the outside of buses if necessary, learns their stories and returns to the West to speak for them. And she is a powerful and eloquent speaker on their behalf, testifying in Congress, addressing the Washington press corps, bringing these stories to life with a natural ability at storytelling. She has also visited small villages in Africa with poverty advocate Jeffrey Sachs to learn what is really needed in these countries instead of hand-outs and charity trucks. With her partner, Brad Pitt, she has donated millions to recovery efforts in the United States after natural disasters and to these countries she has visited for the United Nations.
In spite of her insistence that she is an interested amateur who never went to college, Jolie is a very intelligent woman who has learned quickly and well, and become very good at assessing the situation on the ground and passing on to authorities her evaluations of what is needed to ease the suffering in refugee camps. Jolie doesn’t lecture the people she meets. She listens. Her choice to enter these camps dressed in local garb and her ability to connect with other mothers has proven to be her strength in this work, breaking down the cultural barriers that often keep women from telling their stories and having their voices heard on the international stage.