The Optician of Lampedusa

Displacement occurs when people can no longer stay in their homes. In recent times, many people in Eritrea, a state in Africa, have felt forced to flee one of the most oppressive dictatorships in the world today. Eritrea has no free press (it routinely jails journalists), hardly anyone has the internet and if they do use it they’re forced to use only a government-sanctioned gateway, and there is compulsory military service for an indefinite period of time.

5000 people leave Eritrea each month. About 250,000 have gone to neighbouring countries such as Ethiopia and Sudan. Some attempt to journey to Europe, often taking a route through the Sahara desert, through war-torn Libya, and on rickety boats across the Mediterranean Sea toward Italy. In the first seven months of last year, 11,564 Eritreans arrived in Italy. Many of them decide to journey even further, to other European countries. The Council on Foreign Relations provides this map of the journey:


It is incredibly dangerous. The Wall Street Journal reported that Eritreans accounted for most of the 3000 refugee deaths that occurred in the Mediterranean in 2016. Not all bodies are identified or recovered. Many people become missing as a result of this journey.

The situation is really difficult to get a grip on. The numbers of those displaced, and then dead seem enormous; the journey itself – over rough seas and desert and conflict – is unimaginable. This is precisely why stories are important. Stories put human faces on statistics. They get us feeling and imagining. Stories make the facts all the more horrendous and sad, but that’s because stories make the suffering more real.

31548246British journalist Emma Jane Kirby brings an important story to the issue of Eritrean displacement in The Optician of Lampedusa. It’s a short book, at only 116 pages, but it’s intense. It has a similar style to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood whereby her presence as a journalist is pushed aside to tell the story from another’s point of view. In this case, it is the titular optician.

The optician lives in Lampedusa, an Italian island. He’s out at sea on a boat with his wife and friends when they suddenly happen upon drowning people. Humanely, they rush to save them but even at the beginning it’s clear that they can’t save them all. They grab as many people as they can anyway, piling them on the boat. There are so many people on board that the boat begins to sink. They manage to save 47 lives, but there are hundreds more still in the water, drowning. They’re forced to stop the rescue mission when the coast guard tells them it’s far too dangerous to continue.

The book conveys what the following year is like for the optician and his friends. Many bodies are pulled out of the water over the following days. It is unlikely that all of them will ever be identified. Meanwhile, dealing with the media, and the guilt that they couldn’t save more people is a burden the group carry with them throughout. Kirby writes:

You can see very clearly that it isn’t over for the optician. He’s still searching, still scouring and still desperate to save lives.

The current refugee crisis – whereby over 65 million people have been displaced from their homes – is responsible for causing many missing persons cases. Families get seperated and lost from each other, and people die on dangerous journeys without their bodies being recovered. The Optician of Lampedusa provides a really valuable, human look at the impact of this geopolitical situation.


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