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Relief for Lampedusa but not for Italy’s immigrant problems PDF Print E-mail
Apr 03, 2011 at 09:48 AM

Tunisians fleeing Italian tent camp in Puglia
Is relief in sight for this rocky, rather arid Sicilian island where the ancient Romans once manufactured garum, their prized fish sauce, and which in recent weeks has literally come under siege? Weather permitting, so it would seem. At the beginning of last week, as many as 6000 immigrants from Northern Africa had invaded an island which has a resident population of only 4,500 people (and which has accommodations for only 1200 immigrants) but which - at only 70 miles from the Tunisian coast - is the closest European outpost. But plans put in motion by Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, should leave the island immigrant-free by the end of this weekend or, at best, tomorrow.

Berlusconi in Lampedusa with mayor
Last Wednesday, Berlusconi made a lightening visit to the island and promised the islanders that in three days at the most, all the immigrants would have been taken off the island by ship and transferred to other parts Italy. (The three-day deadline has come and gone but the delay was caused by high seas that forced the requisitioned transport ships to remain in port).What he didn't tell them was that after being transported to the Italian mainland, hundreds of the uninvited visitors would escape from the unguarded tent camps they had been assigned to seek ways to travel north to Northern Italy or on to France, although at the border, at Ventimiglia, they are generally stopped and sent back.

Footage shown on Italian television on Friday showed the immigrants, for the most part Tunisians fleeing not from repression but from an economy that is at a near standstill, scaling unguarded wire fences and disappearing into the countryside. So, paradoxically, by taking them off the island, the Italian government has given a boost to illegal immigration into Italy and Europe. What sense does it make, one might ask, to go to the trouble of setting up tents if the camps are unguarded.

The fact is that so far the number of real refugees - those fleeing from the fighting in Libya for example, and who might be assumed to want to stay in Italy only until it was safe to go back home - seems to be much smaller than the illegal immigrants coming from Tunisia who merely want a better life but don't seem to realize that there just isn't all that room for them on this side of the Mediterranean.

According to Italian law, bonafide political refugees are allowed to have temporary status while their applications for refugee status are considered; illegal immigrants, what the Italians call clandestini, should instead be shipped back to their home country. The Italian government is currently holding talks with Tunisian authorities in an attempt to get them to block the departure of ships to Italy in exchange for economic aid of one sort or another. An agreement of this sort was reached with Albania in the 1990s, and has worked splendidly.

During his visit to Lampedusa last week, Berlusconi played one of his favorite roles, that of a benevolent ruler, telling the irate islanders - justifiably concerned that the lucrative summer tourist season would be compromised by the presence of so many immigrants - not only that he would take the latter off the island but that he would encourage private investments (a golf course, a casino) that will make the island even more attractive. And then, in true imperial style - he could have been the Roman Emperor Tiberius on Capri - added, "I myself will become a Lampedusano. I went onto the Internet and bought a beautiful villa here".

Lampedusans might have had good reason to be skeptical; after all, last November Berlusconi swore to Neapolitans that in three days time he would (once again) have cleared the streets of garbage. Instead, recent reports say there are still 1200 tons of garbage lining Neapolitan streets and with the warm season approaching, no one there is very happy about this.

This time, Berlusconi may actually be able to keep his promise (the problem in Naples now has a lot to do with the conflicts among different levels of local government in that area as well as with the involvement of organized crime). But the Lampedusa exodus has merely shed light on overall mismanagement.

The government's attempts to divide the immigrants among Italy's 20 regions, rather than confining them predominantly to the poorer Italian South for the time being have not been successful, with Berlusconi's chief ally, the terribly coarse Northern League leader, Umberto Bossi, last week saying the immigrants should be kept "out of our balls" and with regions governed by the left, except for Tuscany) also not being terribly cooperative. Last week an undersecretary in the Berlusconi government resigned when, hours after he said publicly that a tent camp in Puglia could take no more than 1500 people, it was announced that twice as many immigrants would be sent there.

Let's face it. This is not an easy matter to deal with. And so far other European countries have not been particularly helpful in trying to solve a problem that is European in scope rather than Italian. Reportedly, more than 19,000 people have arrived in Italy by boat since the Tunisian and Libyan crises began.

And Berlusconi has not helped matters by his contradictory comments. Today he said, and not for the first time, that Italians should be hospitable and welcome these guests. On the other, he also has said repeatedly that the only way to deal with what he terms a "human tsunami" is to send people back where they came from.

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