Posted on March 17, 2005

Fair-Weather Migrants Overwhelm Italian Island

Bruce Johnston, Telegraph (London), Mar. 16

The tiny Italian island of Lampedusa was at saturation point yesterday after 1,300 migrants claiming to be refugees arrived by boat from north Africa within 36 hours. Authorities on the island, which is near Sicily and is Italy’s southernmost point, were facing an emergency after the people overwhelmed facilities for processing asylum seekers. Its small arrival centre, built to house 190 people at a time, is now home to hundreds of the latest arrivals, while yet more have been sent on to Calabria.

The crisis follows a week of good weather which has allowed for safe sea passage. Although almost all claim to have sailed from Turkey — the boats’ registration numbers have been erased — they are believed to have set sail from Libya. Others claim to have fled from Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, Morocco or Senegal, or to be Palestinian. Libya and Italy recently agreed jointly to tackle illegal immigration, a move that was expected to ease the perennial crisis. But despite such efforts, another 7,000 people are said to be ready to make the journey to Lampedusa. A further 160,000 — many from Sub-Saharan regions — are estimated by Italian officials to be heading to north African ports.

The sea passage is said to cost up to £500, with a second trip thrown in free should the first one end in repatriation. The boats used now are said to be newer, sturdier and larger, suggesting that the four international gangs suspected of handling the human traffic have been investing in their trade.