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Abstract

The Mediterranean Sea has become a huge cemetery: many thousands of migrants have lost their lives trying to cross it in search of a better future. In 2015, more than a million migrants and refugees reached Europe through irregular means, but almost 4,000 went missing and probably drowned. In 2016, 364,000 arrived in Europe and more than 5,000 were lost en route. The arrivals in Italy by sea were 181,436 in 2016 and 119,369 in 2017. While UN organizations and EU governments seem unable or unwilling to face this epoch-making drama, the culture industry has begun to exploit it. Migrant tragedies have inspired books and events, exhibitions and art installations, films and TV series.

This article analyses the Mediterranean crisis, focusing on Lampedusa, a small Italian island between Sicily and Tunisia. Lampedusa seems to be an easy gateway to Europe but reaching it from Northern Africa is not easy. Thousands of asylum seekers have met their death on that route, sinking in deflated rafts or trapped inside old boats. The media coverage of these events has turned the island into a global icon, especially after the great events of 2013: the visit of Pope Francis on July 8 and the shipwreck with 366 fatalities on October 3. The article, based on personal field research, shows the complex relations between residents, tourists, and migrants. It also dwells on the use of migration by the culture industry: Ai Weiwei’s installations in Berlin, Vienna, and Florence; Jason deCaires Taylor’s sculpture The Raft of Lampedusa in the underwater museum of Lanzarote; the award-winning films by Emanuele Crialese and Gianfranco Rosi; the glossy TV series Lampedusa. In 2016, the island itself hosted a special exhibition, which was presented as the first step of a transnational and mobile intercultural museum.

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