Skip to main content

'People-trafficking' package deals drive British tourists wild in Lampedusa

'I think actually going through some of the same stuff will make it easier for me to identify with their predicament,' said one Failed State customer.

Author and commentator Will Self offers a satirical response to a controversial recent Daily Mail article, which reported that British tourists on the Greek island of Kos said refugees fleeing conflict there had turned it into a "hell hole".

Just when you thought you’d seen it all when it comes to Western consumers’ appetite for bizarre and novel adventure holidays, a whole new raft (if you’ll forgive the pun) of them float into view.

I’m here on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, the first landfall for migrants trying to reach Europe from Africa, in order to report on the latest hip travel experience: people-trafficking package tours. Yes, that’s right, in the last six months since the numbers attempting the crossing – and consequently those dying – have relentlessly increased, so have the numbers of tourist industry entrepreneurs setting up new businesses on this rocky little isle.

I spoke to Pete Phillips, whose company Maximum Exposure offers British holidaymakers "The Escape of a Lifetime!", and he explained the genesis of the idea: "It’s pretty simple really: I was sat at home watching all these poor bastards being pulled out of the sea; some of ‘em half-drowned, others beaten and abused – all of them terrified and disoriented; and I thought to myself, y’know, with some safeguards and a guaranteed happy ending, a lot of people would find this a really exciting – rewarding even – way to spend their holiday."

For a mere £550 per head, Maximum Exposure offers their basic "Refugee Package", which consists of a space in a hopeless overcrowded open boat that’s towed by motor launch out from Lampedusa into the sea beyond Italian waters. When I ventured that this seemed counter-intuitive, Phillips agreed: "Yeah, we’re going in the opposite direction – taking cosseted middle-class Britons who have access to free healthcare and other benefits by a mere accident of birth out into the scarily chaotic and painfully real world. But that’s the thrill of it! Besides, we only land you on the Libyan coast if you pony-up another two-fifty, otherwise you’re “rescued” after a couple of days."

Those who pay a £100 supplement are winched from the sinking hulk by a helicopter, while the basic package only allows for a boat pickup. Maximum Exposure clients who pay the full £800 for the "Failed State Adventure" are smuggled ashore under cover of night then kept for a week in a bomb-damaged warehouse on the outskirts of Tripoli, before being flown home by Hercules transporters chartered from the British RAF.

I spoke to Emily Braden, an HR manager from Nantwich in Cheshire, who was about to set off on the Failed State Adventure, and asked her what she hoped to get out of it: "Well, some sort of empathy, to be honest," said the 32-year-old, looking fetching in lifejacket and cut-off jeans. "I mean, you can sit at home watching these people suffering and it really doesn’t mean much – not when you’ve a mortgage to worry about. But I think actually going through some of the same stuff will make it easier for me to identify with their predicament, and that’s gotta be a good thing."

For those who want their empathy pumped up still further another company, Jive Aid, offers a still more immersive holiday. Its founder, Dave Fortesque, outlined their programme: "Yeah, well, the punters pitch up here in Lampedusa – we ask them to bring the balance owing in cash, then we take this off them pretty brutally, along with their passports, mobile phones, all that gubbins. We issue them with old charity shop rags – lots of inappropriate Hello Kitty T-shirts, the sort of stuff you see real economic migrants wearing." After that Jive Aid follow the same itinerary as Maximum Exposure’s Failed State Adventure – but with a twist: "Yeah," Fortesque laughs, "their lot get off lightly – but my clients are taken from Tripoli directly across the Sahara. They’re forced into crap old buses and vans, all totally unsafe and completely overloaded. The journey is pretty rough, with a risk of ambush from various armed militias and bandit gangs – then at the end of it we’ve arranged for them to 'stay' with impoverished and immiserated families, either in the Horn of Africa – Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia – or, for those prepared to pay a little more, we can even get them to Baluchistan or Waziristan."

Once at their destinations, Jive Aid clients settle into a benighted existence for weeks – sometimes months. "It can be difficult to get them back," Fortesque concedes, "especially if they’ve contracted HIV, TB or some other infectious disease." But he equivocates as to whether younger female clients have been subjected to genital mutilation during their holidays: "Look, if they have had a clitorectomy or infibulations, so what?  It’s just the equivalent of getting a henna tattoo in Marrakesh, or having your navel pierced in Amsterdam."

But there’s another British tour firm that has set up on Lampedusa and which takes a far less blasé ethical line. Dawn Ferry of Forced Borders outlined the company’s philosophy for me: "We’re appealing to the sort of environmentally conscious consumers who believe wholeheartedly Amnesty International’s clicktivist campaigns will make the world a better place. We offer what we call an 'Asylum-Seeker Sojourn' – clients go through the whole sinking-open-boat-rescue scenario; then they’re taken to the Italian mainland and kept in a simulated refugee camp for a week, before being handed over to subcontracted people-smugglers – mostly Croatians or Turks – who load them into freight containers and truck them right across Europe."

"Once over the Channel safely, they arrive at a mock-up of Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, where they’re interrogated fairly relentlessly for the remainder of their vacation, before being returned their belongings and 'released'. The release is the highpoint of their holiday, pretty obviously – and I’ve seen plenty of clients actually weep when we give them back their iPhones."

It’s so-called "peak-real" experiences – blending fact and fancy into a believable simulacrum of genuine suffering that are attracting British holidaymakers to these new-style adventure holidays in droves. In a world full of depressing news, this represents a beacon of hope – British innovation creating new leisure opportunities means both more jobs, and increased revenue streams for UK PLC. What’s not to like?    

Will Self is a celebrated author and journalist. His books have been translated into 22 languages worldwide and his novel Umbrella was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He is widely published in many of the world’s top publications and is sought after for his public speaking. Self is also a regular contributor to British television and holds the post of professor of contemporary thought at Brunel University.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Migrants arriving on the island of lampedusa in august 2007 (Creative Commons/Noborder Network)