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Last Updated: Saturday, 21 June, 2003, 15:18 GMT 16:18 UK
Italy's illegal migrant conundrum

By Frances Kennedy
BBC correspondent in Rome

The sinking of a boat full of African migrants off the cost of Tunisia underlines the difficulties for nations like Italy of stopping illegal immigrants before they reach their shores.

The issue is dividing the Rome government.

Ship carrying immigrants
Every year thousands embark on 'voyages of hope' to Europe
Each year as the warm weather arrives, the so-called "voyages of hope" commence.

The first landing point in Europe is often Lampedusa, a tiny island off Sicily, which has seen some 3,000 immigrants arrive in the past month.

The Italian navy and coastguard, which are supposed to halt the boats of the immigrant smugglers, often have to tow them into port or intervene to save lives.

Once on land, the illegal immigrants, known as "clandestini", are held at the emergency reception centre before being transferred elsewhere in Italy.

Stemming the flow

Last year's new immigration law makes expulsions much easier - but when migrants are without documents, or if their home country is not co-operative, repatriation can be extremely difficult.

So those elected on an anti-immigrant ticket want them stopped at sea.

A suggestion by Northern League leader Umberto Bossi that the navy use canons to deter them was greeted with general indignation.

Yet the party is insisting if the government does not get tougher it will pull out.

The opposition, the Catholic Church and human rights groups, say it is nonsense to suggest that Italian officials could board overcrowded, unsafe vessels and send them back to Africa.

Bilateral accords that allow the immediate repatriation to the country of departure have been highly successful on the Adriatic coast, in particular with Albania.

Tunisia, after being accused of turning a blind eye, has also become more efficient in stopping the departures.

But now Libya has become the chosen base of the ruthless immigrant trafficking gangs, and its long and uncontrolled desert borders mean people from many central African nations are able to arrive there undetected.

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