Italy Facing Immigration Emergency

Frank Jordans, Google News, March 21, 2011

Italy is facing a humanitarian and sanitation crisis on the tiny island of Lampedusa following the arrival of some 15,000 Tunisian boat people amid fears more migrants will flee there following coalition airstrikes on Libya.

Lampedusa is currently housing some 4,800 Tunisians, almost doubling the island’s population of 5,000 and putting a severe strain on its immigrant holding center which has a capacity of just 850.

Italy had been ferrying and airlifting the migrants off the island to be processed at holding centers elsewhere. But those centers are now full, leading to a backlog in Lampedusa–the primary point of arrival for North Africans due to its close proximity to Africa.

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Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said measures would be taken in coming days to stem the flow and ease the burden on Lampedusa, including a visit to Tunis Wednesday to press for a resumption of the immigration treaty agreements and border controls that evaporated after the country’s popular revolt in January.

He said 25 Tunisians had arrived in Lampedusa in 2010–“Now, 14,000 have arrived in two months.” Maroni added that an Italian navy ship would be sent to the island to transport migrants to holding centers elsewhere in Italy, and he would be meeting with regional officials to find additional centers.

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Maroni told a news conference Monday that some 200 Libyans from the country’s east had arrived overnight in Catania, Sicily, marking the first major influx from Libya to Italy since the revolt against Moammar Gadhafi began over a month ago.

But it appeared his information was outdated. Officials from Catania’s port, police, carabinieri and financial police said the migrants were Egyptians, not Libyans–news reports indicating they claimed to be Libyans to obtain refugee status.

Italy has been sending back the vast majority of the 14,918 Tunisians and Egyptians who have arrived at its borders in recent weeks following popular revolts in their home countries, saying they don’t qualify for asylum or refugee status as there are no wars or humanitarian crises in their countries.

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Italy has demanded Europe help with the flow of immigrants, saying it shouldn’t be expected to cope alone. It has argued that its active cooperation in the Libya military campaign should compel European partners to share the burden and take some of the immigrants off its hands.

“We want to use this authority that our participation in this operation gives us to ask all the states to share with us the cost of the immigrant flows,” Maroni said.

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The anti-immigrant Northern League, a key government partner which has been at the forefront of demands that the EU take in some of the Lampedusa immigrants, submitted a proposal to parliament Monday demanding the European Union take responsibility.

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