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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 July, 2003, 11:42 GMT 12:42 UK
Migrant headache dogs Italy
By Tamsin Smith
BBC, Lampedusa

Boat packed with immigrants off Italian coast
Italy says Libya's open borders have caused a flood of immigrants
As Italy takes over the EU presidency, the country's politicians would like to see headlines dominated by plans for the European economy or the new EU constitution.

But Italian newspapers are talking instead of an invasion of immigrants washing up both dead and alive on Italy's shores.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's maverick coalition partner, Umberto Bossi of the Northern League, has threatened to bring the government down if it doesn't take action.

Italian officials insist immigration numbers are lower this year, but a record number of people have made the journey from North Africa to Europe's most southerly point - the tiny island of Lampedusa, south of Sicily.

The authorities want to send as many people back home as possible - they don't help them make asylum applications even if they have suffered torture and persecution
Francesca, nurse
It is an island of cocktails and sunloungers - a playground for white middle class italians who bask like lizards until the sun goes down.

But on the other side of the harbour, past the elegant yachts and speedboats, you see what is left of Italy's unwanted tourist trade.

A graveyard of rusty splintered boats sinks slowly into the crystal clear waters. The odd shoe or blanket floats to the surface.

"Over 3,000 immigrants have come here so far this year and more than 200 have drowned at sea," says Lampedusa's mayor, Bruno Siragusa, a member of Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia party.

But he is angry that the press talks of an invasion of immigrants.

"Our beaches are full, our hotels are full," he says. "Our fishing nets are full... but not of drowned immigrants like the papers say."

Poor treatment

The tourists splashing in the clear blue waters seem entirely oblivious.

When immigrants arrive on the island, the authorities make sure they are quickly swept into a detention centre near the airport.

It is a yellow warehouse surrounded by barbed wire and built to house 120 people although I am told often there can be as many as 300.

I was not allowed in, but I did manage to speak to Francesca (not her real name).

She is a nurse at the centre, and she worries about the way people are treated.

"I feel very uncomfortable that I am not allowed to speak to these people," she tells me.

"There should be an Arabic translator but he doesn't help them... he helps the police to find the illegals.

"The authorities want to send as many people back home as possible and they don't help them make asylum applications even if they have suffered torture and persecution."

Show of force

Italy's facilities for welcoming and processing immigrants are in a desperate state.

They arrive in a terrible state after a five, six or seven-day journey, in dangerous boats and the people are in critical health... many women are pregnant
Enzo de Sangro, coastguard
There is no real asylum law which means many people end up disappearing into other EU countries to avoid being repatriated or sent to prison.

But tackling these problems is not what Mr Berlusconi means when he puts immigration on the top of his EU agenda.

He needs a visible show of force against illegal immigrations to please the voters back home and the Northern League.

The coastal patrols between Lampedusa and the coast of North Africa now look more like a full-scale military deployment.

Last week the government gave them the power to turn immigrants back if their boats are seaworthy.

A coastguard from the Italian Navy, Enzo de Sangro, says this is impossible.

"They arrive in a terrible state after a five, six or seven-day journey, in dangerous boats and the people are in critical health... many women are pregnant."

Libya blamed

Unemployed immigrants in Italy
Many immigrants in Italy face a bleak future
The Italian Government blames Libya for the recent influx of immigrants.

Mayor Bruno Siragusa agrees: "Gaddafi has deliberately opened his borders with African neighbours so that immigrants from other African countries where we do have some control, are rushing instead to Libya to travel to us."

Italy wants to use its EU presidency to try to lift sanctions on Libya.

It wants Europe to share the burden and help provide Colonel Gaddafi with non-military surveillance equipment.

But some Europeans think the rest of Europe should not agree to share this burden unless italy reforms its asylum procedures.

"The idea that we ask Europe to shoulder the burden of policing our borders but pass the buck in terms of asylum is just not acceptable to anyone," says opposition politician Tana de Zulueta.

I finally managed to catch a glimpse into Lampedusa's detention centre from the airport runway.

The immigrants sat in small groups watching as the holiday makers boarded their planes.

Italy's immigration plans may make the journey from Africa to Europe more difficult but for these people, their futures will not be any easier.


SEE ALSO:
Doubts cloud Berlusconi EU debut
01 Jul 03  |  Europe
Italy in 'fire on migrants' row
16 Jun 03  |  Europe
Europe gripped by migrant myths
19 Jun 02  |  Europe


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