Italy plays role of Europe's immigration gatekeeper

Italy wants the rest of the Continent to stiffen border patrols and asylum guidelines.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

When a 9-year-old Somali girl named Asma arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa in a rickety boat full of illegal immigrants earlier this year, she was in shock. She and her parents had watched helplessly as three of her siblings died during the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean from Libya.

This summer, Italy has once again been horrified as boatloads of exhausted refugees limp into its ports, having set out, mostly from the coast of Libya in North Africa, hoping to sneak into Europe.

Italy, which struggles to patrol its 1,500 miles of porous coastline, is battling to dispel its image as an easy entry point onto the Continent. And it is calling on the European Union for help. After all, once immigrants penetrate Italy or Spain by sea from North Africa, the new arrivals are free to spread through 15 other European countries whose shared borders are open under the Schengen border agreement.

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"Effectively the Italians and the Spanish are patrolling not just their own, but Europe's, borders. So the Italians say Europe should play a bigger part in solving the problem," says Sergio Romano, a political commentator and former Italian ambassador to Russia.

Italy wants Europe to draw up a common immigration policy, creating joint European border patrols, immigrant quotas, and strict asylum guidelines. But with immigration an increasingly politicized issue across Europe, individual countries are unlikely to reach rapid consensus.

Last month, Italy and Germany raised the idea of opening "reception centers" inside Libya to process asylum requests and fly failed asylum seekers back to their country of origin - other African and Middle Eastern nations. European lawmakers and human rights advocates have balked at the concept, warning that it would create "concentration camps" in the desert of North Africa.

Italian lawmaker Rocco Buttiglione, who will be in charge of EU policy on asylum and immigration once he is sworn in as justice commissioner next month, insists that the centers would help people find legal ways into Europe and avoid falling into the hands of criminals smuggling people.

EU figures estimate around 500,000 illegal immigrants arrive in Europe each year from all over the world. The Italian Interior Ministry estimates that immigration into Europe is worth more than $3 billion per year, the trip across the Mediterranean alone costing as much as 2,000 euros ($2,400) per person.

Libya has yet to comment on the proposed camps, but president Muammar Qaddafi has been eager to engage Europe on the issue. This autumn the EU is expected to discuss lifting its embargo on Libya, put in place because of the country's past ties to terrorism. Of late Mr. Qaddafi has tried to build bridges to the West after decades of isolation.

"Qaddafi will try to use this situation to undo the damage done by embargoes over the years," says Mr. Romano.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi traveled to Libya last monthto discuss immigration with Qaddafi. Mr. Berlusconi called the talks "meaningful" and said the two leaders were facing "a problem that isn't just Italian and Libyan, but European and African."

Libya has reportedly already begun to police its borders with Chad, Niger, and Sudan, ultimately to start pushing the immigration front line further south into Africa.

"If for you Italians illegal immigration is a problem, for us it's much more - it's an invasion," Libyan foreign minister Mohammed Abdel-Rahman Shalgham told La Stampa, an Italian newspaper, in an interview.

Libya is negotiating with the EU for more financial and technological assistance, such as radars, night-vision equipment, bullet-proof patrol boats, and aircraft.

On its own, Italy has managed to significantly reduce illegal immigration by strengthening its coastal patrols. The flow of illegal immigrants to Italy dropped by 40 percent, from 23,719 in 2002 to 14,331 in 2003, according to government figures. This year, the number of boats arriving has fallen by another 25 percent.

The decline, however, is mostly from a reduction in immigration from Eastern Europe. Libya, according to Italy's Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu, has become a kind of immigrant bottleneck, with up to 2 million would-be immigrants from all over Africa and the Middle East currently waiting there for a place on a boat to Europe.

Asma is only one of many bedraggled clandestini who have told of horrific conditions in the desert outside Tripoli. She described being locked in a shed with her family for days as jeeploads of people from different countries continued to arrive.

"They kept us all in there, without letting us out, scolding anyone who asked any questions," Asma told journalists in Lampedusa. "We stayed there for four days. Other people were even there for 20 days or more."

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