As boats carrying hundreds of Africans set sail for a better life in Europe, they were met on Italy’s Lampedusa island with two words by a 5-foot, 8-inch blonde: go away.
“They cannot be allowed on the shore,” Marine Le Pen, the 42-year-old leader of France’s anti-immigration National Front, said in a March 15 interview in Rome after a three-hour visit the previous day to Lampedusa. “Send boats out to feed them. But they must not set foot on land.”
The island, a speck in the Mediterranean Sea closer to Tunisia than Sicily, is experiencing first-hand an immigration surge poised to spread to the rest of Europe and drive a deeper wedge in a north-south divide already tested by the sovereign- debt crisis.
The month-long civil war in Libya between Muammar Qaddafi’s regime and rebel forces in the oil-rich east has left 6,000 people dead, driven crude prices to a 2 1/2-year high and unleashed what Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, the country’s most popular politician, called a “biblical exodus.”
North of Rome, a backlash has already begun as Italy warns its neighbors that 70 percent of Africans washing up on its shores are headed to France and Germany to seek work.
One solution proposed by Chantal Brunel, a lawyer of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement, was to “put them back on their boats.” While she apologized for her March 8 remarks, her stance reflects the will of governments outside the Mediterranean rim to keep refugees at bay.
“We are ready to help in economic terms, but I don’t see the future in having us expand legal immigration,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Brussels on March 15.
Since Jan. 15, more than 9,000 people–twice the number in 2010–have crossed 110 kilometers (70 miles) in boats from Tunisia to Lampedusa, inhabited by less than 6,000 people, the Italian Interior Ministry said.
Italy and Malta face the prospect of an influx of Libyans after severing ties with the former colony.
Last December, Qaddafi warned EU leaders that their region may “become black because millions want to come to Europe.”
As part of a reparation deal with Italy worth $5 billion, Qaddafi agreed in 2008 to tighten border controls. That led to the number of Libyan migrants to Italy falling to fewer than 3,000 in 2010 from a record 37,000 two years earlier. In Malta, the influx dropped from a 2008 high of 84 boats bringing 2,775 people to 2 boats carrying 47 in 2010.
While arrivals to Lampedusa are shipped to the Italian mainland, immigrants arriving in Malta are held in detention centers for as long as 18 months. More than half of Malta’s 2.5 million-euro military budget goes to food and shelter for the refugees.
Since the turmoil in Libya began on Feb. 15, Malta has received about 26,000 people evacuated by ship from the North African country by their governments and repatriated to their countries of origins.
Interior ministers from six EU countries near the Mediterranean Sea called on member states last month to back the creation of a special fund that will help them cope with an “uncontrolled” influx of immigration from Libya. Their appeal has gone nowhere.