As boats carrying hundreds of Africans set sail for a better life in Europe, they were met on Italy’s Lampedusa island with two words by a 5-foot, 8-inch blonde: go away.
“They cannot be allowed on the shore,” Marine Le Pen, the 42-year-old leader of France’s anti-immigration National Front, said in a March 15 interview in Rome after a three-hour visit the previous day to Lampedusa. “Send boats out to feed them. But they must not set foot on land.”
The island, a speck in the Mediterranean Sea closer to Tunisia than Sicily, is experiencing first-hand an immigration surge poised to spread to the rest of Europe and drive a deeper wedge in a north-south divide already tested by the sovereign-debt crisis.
“It’s evident that Italy has been abandoned by Europe,” Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said in Brussels on March 10 after a meeting with his European Union counterparts. “We can’t be the policeman of Europe.”
The month-long civil war in Libya between Muammar Qaddafi’s regime and rebel forces in the oil-rich east has left 6,000 people dead, driven crude prices to a 2 1/2-year high and unleashed what Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, the country’s most popular politician, called a “biblical exodus.”
North of Rome, a backlash has already begun as Italy warns its neighbors that 70 percent of Africans washing up on its shores are headed to France and Germany to seek work.
Back on Boats
One solution proposed by Chantal Brunel, a lawyer of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement, was to “put them back on their boats.” While she apologized for her March 8 remarks, her stance reflects the will of governments outside the Mediterranean rim to keep refugees at bay.
“We are ready to help in economic terms, but I don’t see the future in having us expand legal immigration,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Brussels on March 15.
For Italy, the financial toll comes after the Europe’s fourth-biggest economy promised 11.6 billion euros ($16 billion) in spending cuts to trim its deficit with EU limits. Italy’s EU partners have ignored a request for 100 million euros to help Silvio Berlusconi’s government with the crisis.
Since Jan. 15, more than 9,000 people -- twice the number in 2010 -- have crossed 110 kilometers (70 miles) in boats from Tunisia to Lampedusa, inhabited by less than 6,000 people, the Italian Interior Ministry said.
Italy and Malta face the prospect of an influx of Libyans after severing ties with the former colony.
Last December, Qaddafi warned EU leaders that their region may “become black because millions want to come to Europe.”
As part of a reparation deal with Italy worth $5 billion, Qaddafi agreed in 2008 to tighten border controls. That led to the number of Libyan migrants to Italy falling to fewer than 3,000 in 2010 from a record 37,000 two years earlier. In Malta, the influx dropped from a 2008 high of 84 boats bringing 2,775 people to 2 boats carrying 47 in 2010.
Since mid-February, almost 225,000 people have fled Libya, with about 115,000 going to Tunisia and 102,000 to Egypt, the Geneva-based United Nations High Commission for Refugees said on March 10. About 2,000 went to Niger and 5,500 to Algeria.
The distance between Valletta and Tripoli, 220 miles, is the same as that of Paris and London. That makes Malta, which joined the euro region in 2008, an entry point for those escaping the unrest in Libya.
While arrivals to Lampedusa are shipped to the Italian mainland, immigrants arriving in Malta are held in detention centers for as long as 18 months. More than half of Malta’s 2.5 million-euro military budget goes to food and shelter for the refugees.
Since the turmoil in Libya began on Feb. 15, Malta has received about 26,000 people evacuated by ship from the North African country by their governments and repatriated to their countries of origins.
More than 3,000 kilometers away, on the 22nd floor of a Warsaw skyscraper is Frontex, the EU agency charged with border security. It has no ships or helicopters of its own, nor any autonomous decision-making power. Contributions are entirely voluntary, meaning those most affected by immigration flows bear the brunt of the costs.
On Feb. 20, Frontex launched operation Hermes, named after the winged Greek god, to assist the authorities in Lampedusa. Italy is providing the most equipment: two patrol boats and a plane.
“Frontex does not replace the border-control activities of members states as these are performed by, and remain the primary responsibility of the latter,” said Frontex spokesman Michal Parzyszek.
No Problem in Finland
Founded in 2005 with a staff of 300, Frontex is run by a Finn, Ilkka Laitinen. The agency’s ability to act quickly in emergencies is hobbled by having to negotiate with 27 governments that grow increasingly impervious to immigration concerns the further north they are located.
“Italy and Malta have taken a hit recently, but we haven’t seen massive flows yet,” Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb said on March 10.
Interior ministers from six EU countries near the Mediterranean Sea called on member states last month to back the creation of a special fund that will help them cope with an “uncontrolled” influx of immigration from Libya. Their appeal has gone nowhere.
In the summer, Lampedusa is brimming with tourists while simultaneously coping with a wave of immigration that occurs in the hottest months, when it’s safer to travel. Many of the island’s inhabitants move to Sicily in the winter, leaving Lampedusa virtually deserted.
January’s first wave of immigrants to Lampedusa was put up in local hotels before the island’s own detention center was forced to re-open after two years. The facility, which is meant to house a maximum of 100 people, often detained four times as many immigrants and was shut due to health and hygiene concerns.
For a half-dozen new arrivals, there was a silver lining to getting to a holiday island out of season, according to Bernardino de Rubeis, Lampedusa’s mayor. He said six Tunisians last month broke into the villa of Italian pop star Claudio Baglioni, where they crashed for the night, drank wine and ate foie gras before leaving at dawn.