Connect to share and comment

Italy intercepts aspiring immigrants at sea

Policy draws criticism from Vatican, UNHCR.

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:

Rocks rain down on squatters in Athens

Spain's immigration petri dish

A Dutch identity crisis?