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Italy intercepts aspiring immigrants at sea

Policy draws criticism from Vatican, UNHCR.

Two of a group of 48 would-be immigrants are led from an Italian Guardia di Finanza patrol boat at the Sicilian city of Siracusa May 11, 2009. (Antonio Parrinello/Reuters)

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.