A member of Silvio Berlusconi’s cabinet yesterday stirred the bitter debate over immigration by declaring that people attempting to enter the country illegally should be “returned to sender” en masse before they are allowed to land.
The comments from Roberto Calderoli, a member of the Northern League party, were condemned by critics as “inhumane” after a boat full of Africans, some close to death, arrived in Syracuse in Sicily.
Survivors described how they had to dump the bodies of up to 25 of their fellow immigrants who died during their 15-day ordeal crossing the Mediterranean in a rickety boat from Libya.
“Islamist terrorism is using [Italy’s] open door to illegal immigration like an access channel [to Europe], so this door must immediately be closed,” Italian news agencies quoted Mr Calderoli as saying.
Mr Calderoli has been the minister of reform since the Northern League’s famously anti-immigration leader, Umberto Bossi, left the government for the European parliament last month.
“If we do not remove the cause of the problem [of terrorists entering the country among illegal immigrants],” Mr Calderoli said, getting rid of terrorists would be like “trying to empty the sea with a teaspoon”.
Mr Calderoli said anyone “good or bad” trying to get into the country illegally should be “returned to sender” and anyone living illegally on Italian soil should be immediately expelled.
“This is just good sense, not racism,” Mr Calderoli said. “Everyone has the right to legitimate defence, especially when it is preventive in the face of such precise threats as we have received in recent days.”
The minister was referring to repeated internet and newspaper threats Italy has received over the past two weeks, supposedly from the extremist Abu Hafs Brigades, threatening to bring “unbearable hell” to Italy if it does not withdraw its troops from Iraq by Sunday.
His comments are part of a campaign by the Northern League to toughen up the way Italy deals with illegal immigrants, mainly from the north coast of Africa, who appear to be choosing Italy over Malta, Spain or Portugal as the easiest way into Europe.
The minister later said he was not referring specifically to the boatload of exhausted, dehydrated Africans who were rescued on Sunday and taken to safety, some close to death and one dying on the way. But opposition politicians condemned the remarks.
“They [the Northern League] would even shoot at dead people if they could,” said a Green Party member, Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio.
The arrival of the boat full of Africans, who said they were from Sudan, Liberia, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone, raised more moderate calls for help from the interior minister, Giuseppe Pisanu, who called for increased international cooperation to tackle the illegal immigration problem.
All 73 survivors of the latest immigration tragedy were receiving health and social service care yesterday. Two men among them, reported to be of Liberian origin, were arrested for possibly organising the cargo, taking up to €1,800 (£1,200) for each person for a place in the boat.
The Italian government recently estimated that there may be up to 2 million would-be immigrants waiting near Libya’s shores, where smugglers keep them in sheds until a rickety boat is ready for departure.
The Libyan government has not confirmed these reports.