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Italy to stem a human tide of immigrants

The Italian Navy this week will begin turning back Africans who have transformed Lampedusa, Italy, into the site of a humanitarian crisis.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 11, 2009

The harbor of Lampedusa Town, the only settlement in the island. North African smugglers ferry illegal immigrants from Libya to Italy. Once they arrive on the island, authorities haul the boats ashore and take them to a boat 'graveyard' where they are broken up and destroyed.

Nick Squires

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Island of Lampedusa, Italy

Hidden amid the hedges and stone walls of this sun-baked holiday island is the final resting place for dozens of boats that have brought thousands of illegal immigrants from North Africa in search of a new life in Europe.

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Their chipped hulls bear Arabic script and crude drawings of swordfish and dolphins. Scraps of clothing and water bottles litter their grimy decks.

Now Italy is set to launch a campaign to stanch the flow of boats bound for Lampedusa, the country's southernmost scrap of territory, a tiny island that lies closer to Tunisia than it does to Sicily.

Starting May 15, the Italian Navy will work with its Libyan counterpart to intercept and turn back rickety boats packed with desperate Africans. Italy's interior minister, Roberto Maroni, has confidently predicted that "on that day I expect the flow of people entering Italy from Libya to stop and the problem to be resolved."

But with just six motor boats to patrol Libya's lengthy coastline, many Italians doubt the patrols will make much of a difference, especially considering the risks people are willing to take, says Laura Boldrini, spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Italy.

"People are prepared to make the crossing in all weather conditions, at any cost," she says.

Lampedusa's 6,000 residents, who make their living from fishing and tourism, feel embattled by the unending human tide that washes up – in dramatically increasing rates – on their rocky shores. Last year, around 33,000 illegal immigrants reached the 10-mile-long island, a 75 percent rise from 2007.

The acute dangers involved in the crossing were underlined in March when a boat carrying more than 250 people capsized in a storm after setting off from Libya. Only 23 survived. The bodies of another 21 clandestini, as the Italians call them, were recovered by Libyan authorities. The rest were missing – presumed drowned – in a part of the Mediterranean that the Council of Europe describes as a "death trap at the borders of Europe."

Islanders worry that the global economic crisis will force millions more Africans to seek work in Europe. The International Organization for Migration estimates 1 million migrants in Libya are waiting for the chance to cross.

"Of course, there will be more people trying to make their way here," says Fabio Giardina, a marine biologist who works on Lampedusa. "We are just a small island, but this is a human flood."

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