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Last Updated: Monday, 4 October, 2004, 15:58 GMT 16:58 UK
Italy feels strain of migrant exodus
By William Horsley
BBC European affairs correspondent

Italy stands accused of breaking the Geneva Convention on refugees by putting many of the latest migrants to arrive on the island of Lampedusa straight on a plane back to Libya without giving them the chance to apply for asylum.

Italy's Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu insists his government is still respecting international law, while trying to show would-be immigrants that it is not worth the high risks involved in trying to reach Italian soil.

Illegal immigrant in Lampedusa
Some proposals include sending immigrants to transit camps
But Christopher Hein, of the country's Council for Refugees, told the BBC that Italy is now violating the Convention.

The Italian government calls the situation on Lampedusa an emergency. Its facilities for dealing with large numbers of refugees or migrants have for some time been overwhelmed by the scale of the influx.

Occasionally, boats full of refugees have been turned away before reaching Italy's shores. There is little public support for measures to give the boat people a more generous welcome.

Italy is on the front line. Its frantic efforts to stop the outflow of "boat people" setting out from North Africa have so far come to little.

Libya's leader Colonel Gaddafi has agreed in principle to accept help in stemming the movement of large numbers of people from Africa, the Middle East and further afield through Libya towards Europe.

But criminal gangs of people-smugglers on the Libyan coast are still sending out boats overloaded with refugees who are fleeing from war, poverty or persecution and hope for a better life inside Europe.

Transit camps

The latest disaster to be reported is the sinking of a refugee boat off the coast of Tunisia, with the death of up to 60 people from Tunisia and Morocco.

The exodus across the Mediterranean is now reminiscent of the outflow of boat people from Vietnam in the 1980s and the mass exodus of refugees from Bosnia during the war there in the 1990s. No solution to the crisis is in sight.

Libya... has been accused of exploiting the outflow of boat people to advance its goal of getting more financial and political help from Europe
Italy and Germany have proposed a radical new policy for the EU - helping to run transit camps or centres in countries close to those which produce large numbers of refugees.

That could include Libya and Tunisia, which are close to the conflict in Sudan, and Ukraine which is close to Chechnya. But in view of practical and legal problems, EU ministers who debated the proposals last week could only agree to study them and give more technical and practical support to transit countries.

Libya has not even signed the Geneva Convention on refugees. It has been accused of exploiting the outflow of boat people to advance its goal of getting more financial and political help from Europe.

Faced with public anxiety about the high number of asylum applications in recent years, other European governments have taken steps to bring the numbers down. They include new entry visa restrictions and tougher rules on applying for asylum.

Business 'need'

One result of these moves has been to shift the burden of dealing with asylum-seekers more to countries at the EU's land and sea borders, like Italy and Poland.

Ironically, Italian business leaders are among those who say that Italy and other EU states now need more immigrants to fill employment needs and prevent a sharp population decline.

Migrant workers
Many immigrants are forced to work illegally in Europe
The man who is due to become the next EU's Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs, Rocco Buttiglione, says EU-run transit camps might also serve as places for selecting candidates for regular immigration into the EU.

But the obstacles are many. Most European governments want to satisfy their own populations that they are not making immigration too easy. Meanwhile, refugees from poor countries are dying in large numbers trying to reach Europe.

Millions are also driven to work illegally in EU states because their status is illegal or unclear.

Six years after the EU first decided it should have common rules on asylum and immigration the pressure is growing for them to devise new, just and effective policies on both.


SEE ALSO:
Italy's 'little Senegal'
19 Apr 04 |  Africa
Migrant headache dogs Italy
01 Jul 03 |  Europe


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