You probably haven’t heard of the winner of this year’s UNESCO Peace Prize. In the past, the award, officially called the Félix Houphouët-Boigny Prize, has been granted to internationally renowned figures including Nelson Mandela, Yasser Arafat, and Shimon Peres. This year, for the first time ever, the award goes to a mayor: 56-year-old Giusi Nicolini, mayor of a small Italian island that’s home to about 6,000 people.
The island in question is Lampedusa, a small islet roughly equidistant from Southern Sicily, Malta and Tunisia. In recent years, it’s found itself at the heart of Europe’s refugee crisis. As mayor, Nicolini has stood out from her colleagues by campaigning to ensure that the island deals as efficiently and humanely as possible with the migrants and refugees fleeing war-torn Middle Eastern countries by sea. In campaigning across Europe to ensure better funding and faster visa processing for refugees and migrants, Nicolini has made Lampedusa a rare (though controversial) bright spot on a continent where hostility to even desperate migrants, partly manufactured by the media, has grown.
The crisis Nicolini and her fellow islanders face is not a small one. According to the International Organization for Migration, 649 migrants died or went missing in the Mediterranean in the first three months of 2017 alone, following years of high death tolls. Within the past month, 146 people drowned when a boat sank in the waters off Lampedusa, the sole survivor a 16-year-old Ghanaian boy.
Nicolini’s approach, while far from uncontroversial, has streamlined the processing of migrants who arrive on the island. Lampedusa’s reception center is now able to process and give shelter to up to 700 migrants at a time, moving most of them on to Sicily or the Italian mainland. This is extremely impressive given the island’s small size, though Lampedusa still struggles to deal with spikes in arrivals—such as the 1,000 people who landed on the island over Easter weekend. Nicolini has also used her status as a public figure to repeatedly promote a more humane understanding of the plight of the Mediterranean’s migrants, such as here on her Twitter account:
Not everyone is thrilled with Nicolini’s performance since she was elected in 2012. Some locals accuse her of putting migrants’ needs before theirs, the island’s status as a haven of relatively enlightened migrant policy having overshadowing its former renown as an unspoilt island with beautiful, secluded beaches. By contrast, some pro-migrant advocates see the so-called “Lampedusa Model” as a way of fast-tracking migrants into the forced renunciation of their rights, a system whose relative slickness doesn’t efface its cruelty. In her acceptance speech, her tribute to the idea of an open, compassionate Europe is nonetheless stirring:
In a time when many want to shut borders and—talking of non-existent invasion—put up walls, being given this award gives us hope for a united Europe, where humanity has not disappeared. It is on these principles which Europe must remain founded, or we risk sinking ourselves along with the refugees and migrants who try to cross the Mediterranean.
Dedicating her award in part to journalist and activist Gabriele Del Grande, currently imprisoned by the Turkish state, she added:
“I pledge this award to all those who did not manage to cross the sea because they ended up beneath it.”