Capsized boat sharpens Europe's concern over migrant influx from Libya, Tunisia

Italy continued searching for survivors of a boat that capsized after leaving Libya for Lampedusa, the Italian island where thousands of migrants have landed since the start of Arab unrest.

Francesco Malavolta/Lapresse/AP
Survivors receive assistance upon their arrival in Lampedusa, Italy, April 6. Italian coast guard officials were trying Wednesday to rescue migrants lost at sea after their boat capsized off the coast of Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island close to North Africa, officials said.

The immigrant crisis facing Europe as refugees from Tunisia and Libya continue landing on its shores was thrown into stark relief when as many as 250 African migrants were drowned in the Mediterranean.

Italian rescue vessels resumed their search for survivors Thursday, a day after their boat capsized when sailing from the coast of Libya to Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost island and the first stepping-stone to mainland Europe. Around 50 people, most of them from Somalia and Eritrea, have been rescued.

Their boat was just the most recent to depart turbulent North Africa in a new wave of immigration to Europe that one Italian government minister said could grow into a “Biblical exodus." Since the beginning of the year, nearly 400 boats carrying close to 26,000 people have arrived on the tiny scrap of land, which lies closer to North Africa than to Italy.

The arrival of so many migrants is not only overwhelming facilities on Lampedusa, where Italy processes immigrants, it is raising concerns across Europe at a time when many countries are putting limits on migration and anti-immigrant sentiment is growing.

A pan-Europe problem?

On Thursday, Italy stoked those concerns by announcing a controversial initiative to give up to 20,000 migrants short-term residency papers that will allow them to travel around Europe.

The move is likely to anger France, the intended destination of many French-speaking Tunisian migrants who form the bulk of those who will receive the permits. In recent days French police have blocked hundreds of Tunisians from crossing into France from the Italian border town of Ventimiglia.

France's immigration minister, Claude Guéant, said Thursday France would prevent the immigrants from entering the country even if they were issued the papers, which Italy insists should allow them freedom of movement within the visa-free Schengen area, comprising all the European Union's 27 member states except Britain and Ireland.

"France does not intend to suffer a wave of Tunisian immigrants. To move freely within the Schengen bloc, it is not sufficient to have a residence permit. You also need to have identify documents and above all, proof of economic resources. If these conditions are not met, it is absolutely within France’s rights to send them back to Italy and that’s what it will do," said Mr. Guéant.

Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni has complained of a "total refusal to cooperate" on the refugee crisis by Italy's neighbors and the European Union, while Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said his country is having to deal with what should be a pan-European problem.

Poor conditions in Lampedusa

Under normal circumstances, Lampedusa's brightly painted fishing boats, quiet coves, and turquoise bays make it the archetypal Mediterranean holiday island. But the recent crush of migrants has turned the small island into a vast open-air refugee camp.

Many of the new arrivals sleep in shelters made out of scraps of plastic sheeting and driftwood.

“It’s very cold at night – we have to wear all our clothes,” says Jifani Becem, a farmer from Mahdia, Tunisia, who shares a ramshackle shelter lined with cardboard with 20 of his compatriots. “We have nowhere to go to the toilet. It’s very dirty. I just want to get to France. I don’t care what kind of work I do.”

The island, which is just 10 miles long, has a single immigrant reception center, capable of accommodating around 1,000 people. A former US military communications base, which in 1986 was the target of a missile launched by Col. Muammar Qaddafi, has been turned into temporary accommodation for women and children. Thousands of other migrants – most of them young men – have been largely left to fend for themselves.

Last week, there were 6,000 migrants on the island, aimlessly roaming its only town and outnumbering the resident population of 5,500. They set up their makeshift tents wherever they could find space – on beaches, between upturned fishing boats, cactus bushes and palm trees, and on a windswept hill of rock and scrub overlooking Lampedusa’s harbor.

Pushed to the brink

“We call it the hill of shame,” says Antonio Geudellari, a local businessman, as he surveyed the scene from the dockside. “How can we go on like this? Kids are afraid to leave the house, the women are scared. It’s a disaster for Lampedusa.”

Locals have shown remarkable tolerance, however, treating the arrivals with kindness and sympathy. “We feel sorry for these young men, sleeping on the ground night after night and having nowhere to wash or go to the toilet,” says Pasquale Policardi, the owner of a bakery.

But even the most sympathetic say that Lampedusa has been pushed to breaking point and that it cannot cope with the invasion of refugees. Locals who make their living from fishing and tourism have seen their island turned into a military garrison, flooded with hundreds of soldiers, paramilitary police and Red Cross workers.

The wall of a kiosk on the harbor front has been daubed with large blue letters: “Enough! The island is full up.”

Many of the new arrivals have been moved to hastily built camps and former military barracks on Sicily or mainland Italy. They contain Tunisians and Libyans but also a dozen other nationalities, including Malians, Nigerians and Sudanese, Gambians and Bangladeshis.

Hundreds of young men have been able to escape the reception centers by simply vaulting over wire fences, often beneath the gaze of guards.

Humanitarian outcry

Human rights groups have condemned the Italian authorities’ response to what has turned into a humanitarian crisis as totally inadequate.

The international medical organization Médecins Sans Frontières said it was “intolerable” that migrants were given 1.5 liters of water a day, instead of the humanitarian standard of 20 liters, and that there were just 16 chemical toilets for the 3,000 people camped out around the port area.

“It’s difficult to believe that one is in Italy, a G8 country. Living conditions on the island are worse than those seen in the refugee camps in other parts of the world where MSF works,” said Kostas Moschochoritis, the director of MSF in Italy.

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