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Last Updated: Friday, 8 August, 2003, 14:22 GMT 15:22 UK
Sicily's sorry tide of migrants

By William Horsley
BBC European affairs correspondent

Sicily's shores are a graveyard for the boats of illegal immigrants that sailed from Africa but never reached land.

Wreck of migrants' boat
Many of the boats are not seaworthy
Two-and-a-half thousand people are known to have died crossing the Mediterranean in the past few years. The total is certainly more.

The coastguard in Syracuse is on high alert.

This year patrols on Italy's coast have stopped more than 60 boats and saved 6,000 lives.

Coastguard Carmello Bosco said the would-be immigrants are their highest priority.

"It's our most urgent task to look out for the desperate people in their boats," he said.

On one boat I held in my arms a child, which had been separated from its parents
Coastguard Carmello Bosco
"They're usually out of food and water. The sanitary conditions are appalling. And they come with small children.

"On one boat I held in my arms a child, which had been separated from its parents. We took everyone on board to safety ashore."

The conscience of Europeans is tested by these scenes.

Yet most know little about the boat people, and why so many risk their lives at sea.

Thirty-seven died when a boat ran onto rocks within sight of a Sicilian beach.

Most of those were refugees from the war in Liberia.

One woman's escape

One woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo began her journey four years.

Chantal is now safe in a Sicilian hostel with her daughter Merveile.

But she hides her face for fear of being recognised in her home country.

Rescued migrant
Many risk their lives crossing from Africa
"Soldiers of the rebel army in Rwanda came into my home at three in the morning... ," she said. "They raped me, even though I was seven months pregnant.

"And they took my husband away, to make him fight in the war. I don't know if he's alive or dead."

She says the soldiers killed her son and mother, and took away her husband and a daughter.

After a month in hiding she gave birth again.

Housing problem

"Merveille was born in Congo," she said. "I was alone in the forest. God helped me to deliver the child by myself. I wrapped her in the clothing that I had. I picked her up and just started walking."

A Christian priest helped her get away.

"In Turkey I pleaded for someone to give me work. But they told me: 'You can't work, because you are dirty'. They chased me away and said: 'We don't need you. You are dirty.'

In Turkey Chantal was sexually attacked again. Again she faced the dangers of the sea.

I thought I was going to die with my child
"For three days in the boat I thought I was going to die with my child. When we reached land other people in the boat shouted 'Italy, Italy'. I fell into the water with my child. The police came and pulled us out. I was told the place was Syracuse."

Now Chantal has a roof over her head. But Laura Boldrini of the UN's Refugee Agency says Italy only has housing for a fraction of those who come by sea or land.

In Syracuse, thanks to Catholic volunteers, refugees get advice on their asylum claims.

Routine spectacle

But Italy has hastily enacted laws to stop more migrants getting in.

"I was able to watch the first steps of a group of boat people here," said Ms Boldrini.

"A naval ship brought in 38 'clandestini' - illegal immigrants - picked up off Lampedusa, an island near the Libyan coast.

I say yes to people who come to work legally, but no to criminality
Giovanni Marino
Nationalist politician
Three women and one child - the rest, men from Somalia, Algeria and other parts of Africa.

Local people stay up late for the spectacle, though now it is quite routine.

One in three Sicilians is out of work. But the boat people have nothing but the clothes they wear.

At the Reception Centre at Agrigento, they are fingerprinted and sent on to the mainland.

Some will later be returned home by force, when their claims are turned down.

Most will stay even without permission, making a living somehow, or melting into the black economy of Europe.

Taking advantage

Giovanni Marino, a nationalist and a respected local politician, condemns alleged comments by senior government minister, Umberto Bossi, who said the boats should be kept away with cannons.

Many of the migrants will be sent home
But he backs tough laws to stem the human tide.

"Certainly, some of those who come ashore here at Agrigento have taken advantage of our hospitality," he says.

"They get involved in drugs and prostitution. I think we must set a quota for those who are allowed to come here, and stick to it... I say yes to people who come to work legally, but no to criminality!"

In her haven near Syracuse, Chantal has found solace after four years of fear. She hopes her asylum claim will soon be granted.

A Congolese priest gives spiritual support.

Merveille is young enough to overcome the trauma. But many like her will follow over the sea, hoping that Europe will turn out to be their promised land.

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