Italy intercepts aspiring immigrants at sea

ROME — A new policy to force high-seas confrontations with illegal immigrants bound for Italy's coast from Africa has landed the political elite in some hot water.

This month, as migration numbers again rose, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government took a dramatically different tack and one that critics charge violates international rules aimed at protecting refugees. 

Boats carrying shiploads of migrants hoping to land on European soil are to be stopped in international waters and turned back or, if necessary, detoured to government centers on the islands of Lampedusa or Sicily. Italian officials have said they hope at some point to be able to process people at sea. Italy has also provided three vessels and training to Libyan security forces that will patrol waters near African ports. 

After days of complaints over the policy from human rights groups and even the Vatican, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini called this week for a European Union summit to come up with a better way to handle the crush of woe and need. 

Immigration is a hot-button issue in the Mediterranean countries and in Europe. No government has a good or nimble solution — or one that could replicated across Europe — to meet the demands of a burgeoning immigrant class. 

Summer is a busy and dangerous time in the coastal waters of southern Europe. Seas are calm, days are long and waves of poor people and refugees from Africa set sail on smugglers’ crafts for Italy, Greece or Spain in hopes of gaining a foothold in the West. 

This summer, in particular, makes for hot debate over illegal immigration. It is election season for the European Parliament. The Italian effort to stop the seafaring migrants, forged by Berlusconi's right-wing government, has heightened the political stakes of the June vote.

The first shipload of immigrants — 227 people who sailed from Tripoli — was intercepted May 6 and turned back by Italian ships within hours. Interior Minister Roberto Maroni called the operation a “model that European countries should adopt toward coastal countries.”

This week, Berlusconi tried to play up the policy by offering a startling observation during a press conference with EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

Berlusconi said the push-back policy was a better option for the migrants than waiting in his state-run processing centers. Italy’s main center, known for intense overcrowding, is “very similar to a concentration camp,” Berlusconi said.

The main holding facility on Lampedusa, the most heavily affected port city, was recently renamed as an expulsion center. Berlusconi said he plans to double the number of such centers to 20 from 10.

Human rights groups and even the Vatican quickly called the push-back policy a mistake. Refugees have a right to apply for political asylum under international conventions. Critics said sea confrontations eclipse that right.

Such criticism prompted Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa last weekend to lash out at the humanitarian agency most focused on the newcomers, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

La Russa called the U.N. refugee agency “not worth a damn” and personally attacked spokesperson Laura Boldrini, a Roman and longtime asylum advocate as "a criminal” and “inhuman.” La Russa, a member of the right-wing National Alliance party, added a dose of political invective by calling Boldrini “a Communist.”

Boldrini, in an interview Thursday, declined to respond to La Russa except to point to the issue at hand: Italy and Europe have yet to resolve a historic border challenge.

Last year, 36,000 people slipped onto the islands of Lampedusa or Sicily — a 79 percent increase from 2007, according to UNHCR. Among those people who landed by sea, 75 percent asked for political asylum, Boldrini said. Half of those people qualified, she said.

The migration shift certainly makes for some acute social changes. Lampedusa, home to 6,000 people, has been transformed by the phenomenon. Tourism has fallen. The number of police and military has soared to as many as 1,000 personnel. There is no sign that life will return to normal anytime soon.

In the first four months of 2009, the number of immigrants who arrived by sea in Italy increased by almost 25 percent from the same time period in 2008, according to UNHCR estimates.

Political commentators note an increasingly ugly tone — called racist by some — in the immigration debate. Berlusconi recently shrugged off that observation by saying his right-wing allies, unlike the opposition, do not envision a “multi-ethnic” Italy.

Boldrini said politicians are playing off Italy’s fears in these hard economic times. “I’m really sorry that immigration, and asylum, is being used as a political tool. This is not wise,” Boldrini said. “That creates a lot of social tension and sense of xenophobia.”

As for Berlusconi claiming that Italy’s holding centers were akin to concentration camps, Boldrini demurred. There has been trouble — immigrants torched a Lampedusa center in February to protest overcrowding — but Boldrini begged off dissecting Berlusconi’s logic.

"In Lampedusa, (the center) was OK when there was 800 people there. It was not OK when there were 1,800 people ... . I don't know. It's difficult to understand the rationale behind statements like that," Boldrini said.

More on immigration in Europe:

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Spain's immigration petri dish

A Dutch identity crisis?