By Massimiliano Sfregola and Francesca Polo



Advertising of “Rederij Lampedusa” Canal Tours

Two holdouts from the “graveyard of ships” have landed in the peaceful canals of the “Venice of the north”, fleeing death and despair down south; in their “new life” Meneer Vrijdag and Hedir are no longer carrying desperate people running away from hell, but rather curious individuals willing to pay a ticket of 20 euro to enjoy the grachten (canals) of the capital, listening to stories about immigration on board a vessel just like those they see every day on their tablets and smartphones. This is entertainment with a social purpose. “Before being able to get to Amsterdam, I spent a year in a Libyan jail for nothing, just for the fact of being a refugee, “says the guide to a small group of passengers taken on board on the “Lampedusa Rederij” an Amsterdam shipping company. The guide is not actually a refugee but a Dutch actor of Iranian origin that, over the course of a two hour journey through the capital, becomes deeply involved in the stories of a diverse array of individuals of minority background that, according to those stories, would have made Amsterdam famous;  the guide tells the stories of Amsterdam’s Portuguese Jews, Chinese, Italians and even Ayaan Hirsi Ali (who actually does not bear neither refugees nor Islam) stories of individuals that would represent the liberal tolerant and multi-ethnic nature of the capital. Ultimately, the real attraction of the tour is not the stories, a loosely-structured amalgam of anecdotes spanning several centuries of history but Hedir himself, a the worn vessel from Portopalo,  Sicily, with wood weathered by the elements and paint eroded by the ocean’s salty waters. While multi-ethnic crew also includes Syrian refugees (real), the idea behind the project is 100% Dutch: Teun Castelein, 35 year-old Dutch artist is the brains behind the initiative that has been “branded” Lampedusa Rederij company; moreover, even at this latitude all know Lampedusa, and not just for its beauty.

Enthusiasm, financial backing and “Lampedusa experience” accessible for everyone

Lampedusa Rederij is certainly a successful operation: loads of coverage on the press and many illustrious “endorsements”. However, what is the ethical implication of using aesthetic representations of the plight of asylum seekers to make a consumer product? If politics sees it one way, the artists see it in another: the Stichting Geleukzoekers, , the non-profit organization that runs the project has received generous amount of public and private funding.AFK-logo The City of Amsterdam, for example, confirmed the handing of an amount of 12,500 euro through the Amsterdamse Fondsen voor de Kunsten. The City justified its decision as it viewed this project as “A means to sensitize the Dutch community of Amsterdam – to the issue of refugees as profiling the capital as city of immigration.” Somewhat perversely, the mayor refuses assistance to undocumented refugees (real ones) while its administration funds a a company of actors who impersonate asylum seekers. Even Vluchetelingewerk, the largest Dutch non-profit organization for refugees, has chosen to contribute to the initiative “but only with a small sum”, points out a press officer, while the Mondriaans Fond donated 50 thousand Euro through the ‘Art program of Impact‘set up in 2015 on the initiative of the government to stimulate artistic projects in the Netherlands and abroad. “The project has something both alienating and poetic,” – notes the official decision – an alarming aftertaste because of its character of entertainment activities , leading the company to reflect on an urgent issue which according to the artist do not want to see.”

Rederij Lampedusa, the “ultimate shuttle service” as advertised on the website

The support of important partners such as the town of Lampedusa and one in Amsterdam and the renowned Dutch cultural festival ‘Oerel’, would have further convinced the commission AOI to follow up with Teun Castelein and his initiative. Money also came from Denmark: “the Fix & Foxy theater company has received from us 398,000 Danish kroner [about 50 thousand Euro], for” the Great Escape “project that includes participation Teun Castelein “tells Bo Hansen, the head of Musik og Scenekunst, Danish fund for the art. These institutions have kickstarted the project, but how does Rederij Lampedusa sustain itself? The answer is on the website: although one can make donations on its home page, it is not a group of volunteers who keeps the organization alive; indeed, there is a fee to pay to get on board for one of their weekly rounds. The company caters to all interests and tastes:  you can also book a “blind date” designed for newly arrived expat in Amsterdam, dinner included. A bargain when you consider the costs of the “journey of hope” for those who populated those boats in the trip from Libya.

vip tour
Some “offers” from Rederij Lampedusa

The paid ticket formula, however, is new. Until a few weeks ago, in fact, the boat tour was free. A donation was all the crew requested. The company menu has something for everyone: in addition to “taxi” service to some festivals, there is also a private rental option. 31mag noted that the company charges 20e per person per hour
for a ride; the boat is equipped with a sound system and includes the possibility of “stops for a dip.” It is a party boat just like the many who sail the waters of the capital. It is true that the legal entity which manages the activities of the company is non for profit but that doesn’t actually mean that it is not possible to earn a wage (and more) from it. Beyond boat tours, the non- profit organization does not engage in refugee outreach, nor with campaigns supporting the thousands of asylum seekers the municipality of Amsterdam is struggling to accommodate. It provides no financial or logistical assistance to vluchtelingen support groups. The suspicion that this socio-cultural operation is, in fact, a venture using the’aesthetics of social marketing’ to gain attention is not far-fetched; on the site of the “shipping company”, you can read: “Lampedusa Cruises is an art project in the form of a service company. The company offers crossings, VIP arrangements and canal cruises, the same services as other shipping companies in Amsterdam offer […] On the IJ and in the canals the firm will sail to raise awareness for the refugee issue in cooperation with various parties and individuals and will do everything to find brighter horizons. “

Entrepreneur or artist for Human Rights?

Find information about Teun Castelein and his project is not difficult: information is all over the web. According to the Telegraaf, he is a “volcano” of original and extravagant ideas such as cannabis cheese and the clothing brand “Allah” (which, no need to explain why, could not register) or the store selling “North pole ice”: all strictly market-oriented. Nothing here is illegal. That said, there is no trace of non-profit or socially-oriented activities in his career.

Teun Castelein

How Castelein has switched from Allah to the “boats of hope” is a story he told: looking for a project to present to the Twente Biennale in 2012, he made a trip to Lampedusa where he discovered the cemetery of boats. This sparked a new, fresh idea: to bring the boats in Northern Europe and start a business.

In 2013, in fact, Castelein tried to organize a real business with the resale of the boats. The Dutch tv NPO explains his intentions: “As long as migration exists, then there will be refugee boats,… and my business …” Lighter – and more honest – It could not be. Boat businesses, however, would not be successful. It was 2013 and the next project, to establish a shipping company in Amsterdam with these boats of hope, would take another two years to realize because obviously, regardless of one’s determination, one cannot just go to Lampedusa and sail away with a refugee boat.

“Sail” and the role of the municipality of Amsterdam

Until now the story is about intentions and purposes, but on the 15th of June 2015 the two boats leave Sicily. The news is in the Italian press Siracusa News: “The request of the boats has been received in the month of March by the Mayor of Amsterdam, Dr. Eberhard van der Laan, who aims to carry out two projects and school projects in program in the Dutch capital next summer, “says the newspaper.” “The first project is aimed at Amsterdam schools to raise awareness among students on the duty of solidarity towards non-EU citizens. The second project is connected to the international sailing event, Sail “.AFK-logo In fact, the first “public appearance” of the revived boats from Lampedusa was just a year ago, at the International Festival “Sail.” The municipality of Amsterdam, in short, would not mention the “Rederij Lampedusa” project to the Italian authorities.” Why? According to 31mag, the press office of Mayor van der Laan has not denied the reconstruction but corrected the angle: “The mayor made the request,” it claimed,”on behalf of a group of artists for a project aimed at schools at Sail 2015. But the City itself has no further involvement. If, as it seems, the project does not have the socio-educational purpose initially exposed, this surely must be corrected”.

While Amsterdam has remained largely silent on this matter, Carlo Parini, deputy commissioner and head of GICIC (a division of italian police specialized in immigration), remembers it quite well. “I personally handed the boats to the town officials of Amsterdam,” recounts “and the reason why judge and the government gave green light is due to its high social value”. Besides, why question the intentions of a foreign institution? “Requests of this kind are not frequent”, concluded the deputy commissioner. If Italian authorities had known that the two boats would be used for canal tours, would they have also authorized the transfer to the Netherlands? ”Probably not.” continues Parini, “The boats have been entrusted to the Dutch institution with a purpose, no one here was aware of other projects.”

Teun Castelein with Giusi Nicolini

To summarize: the Dutch authorities asked Italy for two boats for social and educational purposes, the Italian authorities said yes but weren’t informed that such boats would have been used by a group of artists- artists now claiming that they established Lampedusa Rederij “with the authorization of the Italian authorities.”
But Rederij Lampedusa does not share this view: “To raise doubts and questions is the goal of our project” tells Teun Castelein to 31mag. He welcomes dissenting opinions and criticism: “What we are trying to bring to Amsterdam is a different perspective on a scene monopolized by commercial tour operators“. Yet the Italian authorities did not appear particularly impressed by the initiative: “Strange,” he said, puzzled. “We have done everything in accordance with the rules with the intercession of the municipality of Amsterdam. Even the mayor of Lampedusa, Giusi Nicolini, when I met her in 2013 supported it enthusiastically. However, mayor Nicolini, according to the account of Castelein, warned him of the enormous difficulties of getting the boats out of Italy. Contacted by 31mag, she was not available for comments.

The outraged voices are those of refugees

To date, the artist-entrepreneur has largely received positive attention and accolades: several articles in the Dutch press, a BBC service and one of Al Jazeera have sung the praises of the artist who wants to draw the attention of the wealthy and distracted Amsterdammers to the fate of people less fortunate. But what do actual asylum seekers think about it? demo-geen-mens-is-illegaal-084-300x200The refugees-undocumented group Wij Zijn Hier tells 31mag that it met with Castelein to express the concerns that his project raised, especially as regards the involvement of undocumented asylum seekers. Yoonis Osman, from Somalia and a spokesman for the group, goes straight to the point: “I am disgusted, for me this is absolutely unacceptable,” he thunders. “Rederij Lampedusa not only shows an absolute lack of respect for the tragedy of the refugees, but exposes them to unnecessary risks for undocumented involved in the project.” According to Osman, the ethical problem was not adequately addressed by Castelein: “I asked him what the social value was, but I have not heard anything that would convince me.” Indeed, those fears of Wij Zijn Hier were not unfounded: in May, Lampedusa Rederij launched a “taxi” service for participants to the Oerol festival in the north of Holland. During one of the trips, however, the boat attracted the attention of the Marechaussee, the Dutch military police, who nearly stopped and detained of the refugees who sailed with Castelein. The reason? He was ‘undocumented’. But those refugees are not the only dissident voices: “In the light of these facts it does not seem that the initiative has educational character”, Jorrit Nujiens, Amsterdam councilor for Groenlinks and party responsible for the issue of asylum seekers, comments to According to Nuijens, if the reconstruction of 31mag will be confirmed, Castelein would have much to explain.

An intellectual approach

Castelein’s controversial relationship with the Amsterdam refugees began long before the project of Lampedusa. In 2012, a group of refugees who had been denied asylum began a protest, camping out near Osdorp. That would later form the core of the “Wij Zijn Hier” group. According to Osman’s account in 31mag, Castelein showed up at the improvised tent camps equipped with two phones, and asked the refugees in protest if they were willing to host a hot line aimed “to people in need.” The project was called Crisis Consult and is no longer active. “That was way grotesque” says Osman, “we were protesting, we were struggling to survive and we were traumatized; and what did ?” The artist explained the artistic nature of the initiative and called it a goliardic approach with a social purpose. “They are so experienced in dealing with difficulties that they can help others to solve their daily problems. Also they would go from being victims to having an active role” the artist-entrepreneur said. In theory, this is a plausible argument, but also one that takes no account of reality. “Lampedusa Rederij “ surely a lawful initiative but it raises several ethical questions. For example, it is important to identify the social impact of “private tours” and taxi services for festivals, not even classified under . If the end justifies the means, in this case it is not clear what is the end and what is the means.