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.
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The center was designed to hold 800 people. Earlier this year, it was housing 1,800, with some sleeping under plastic sheets. In February, a group of Tunisian migrants tried to break out, setting fire to a building and clashing with security forces. More than 60 were injured.Skip to next paragraph
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"This is an island for tourists; we are not equipped to deal with a humanitarian crisis," says Claudia Monti, a boutique owner. "There's been so much negative publicity about the immigrants that we worry whether the tourists will come."
Some fear breakouts and riots on a larger, more dangerous scale. "Lampedusa is Europe's frontier and a place of transit – a bridge between the two shores of the Mediterranean," said the island's priest, the Rev. Stefano Nastasi. "We are not insensitive to the suffering ... but we also don't want to be forgotten."
While some migrants earn a precarious living selling fake designer goods on the streets of Rome or working in the factories of Naples and Milan, many others push north, heading for France, Germany, and Britain. No matter how cold the welcome they receive, a new life in Europe is almost always better than the danger and poverty left behind in war-torn countries like Somalia, Sudan, and Chad.
Isaias, an Eritrean, fled his country six years ago and saved enough money to pay smugglers to take him from Libya to Lampedusa. He survived the crossing and eventually was granted a residency permit in Italy. He has since returned to Lampedusa and works in one of the hotels. But even now he struggles to talk about his ordeal.
"It was horrible. I lost many friends on the way," he said. "I don't like to talk about it. I just want to get on with this new life and forget all those bad memories." 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.
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."