Tunisian exodus puts heavy strain on Italy

Monday, February 14, 2011

ROME/LAMPEDUSA - The sadly familiar pictures of coastguards helping exhausted people off rickety fishing boats in the port of Lampedusa have alarmed Italians.

Fleeing chaos and unemployment, some 5,000 Tunisian illegal migrants have braved the treacherous sea route to the small Italian island in the Mediterranean, south of Sicily, over the past four days.

On Sunday, bowing to pressure from relief organizations and the local population, the Italian government ordered the reopening of the island’s main refugee camp.

The unexpected wave of refugees from North Africa has overwhelmed facilities on Lampedusa, merely 20 sq km in size. Yet again, it is verging on a breakdown.

Lampedusa had been spared such human waves for a while. In the wake of rigid, controversial deportation policies by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative government, just 403 refugees arrived between July 2009 and July 2010.

Lampedusans well remember the same period a year earlier, however, when the figure was 20,655.

The numbers were the reason that refugee camps were closed about a year ago. The Italian government had previously rejected reopening even the central reception camp Contrada d’Imbriacola, which holds about 800 people and was originally meant as a first-aid facility.

As explained by Roberto Maroni, Italy’s interior minister and a member of the Northern League party, Rome did not want to “additionally encourage” would-be immigrants.

But faced with thousands of new refugees, Rome relented. As of Sunday evening, Contrada d’Imbriacola was back in operation. A day earlier, the Italian cabinet met in a special session and declared a state of humanitarian emergency.

To ease pressure on Lampedusa, Italian authorities have ferried and airlifted refugees to camps in Sicily and on the Italian mainland as quickly as possible. The camps were almost full by Sunday, however. A temporary tent camp was to be set up near the Sicilian city of Syracuse to deal with the overflow.

The bulk of the refugees on Lampedusa - more than 2,200 were still there on Sunday, police said - were assembled on the jetty of the old harbour despite the cold. The more fortunate ones found places in improvised emergency shelters.

Meanwhile, no end of the exodus from North Africa is in sight.

“It’s become impossible for us to live in Tunisia,” one of the refugees on Lampedusa was quoted as saying by Italian media Sunday. She said armed robberies and other forms of violence had become daily occurrences and that no one knew who was in charge any more.

“I have no work and no chance to survive,” a young Tunisian man added, a complaint shared by many of his countrymen.

Political observers note that last month’s overthrow of president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years of dictatorial rule has not solved the serious problems in the country, where chaos, unemployment and poverty are prevalent in many areas.

On top of long-existing problems, police and military troops that used to stringently monitor the ports in Tunisia and control departures left their posts during the political turmoil.

Maroni has accused Tunisia’s interim government of failing to fulfil the countries’ bilateral accord on financial support in exchange for blocking the departure of illegal migrants. The “open gateway to Europe” could attract people from other African nations, he said.

What will happen next? In the winter of 2008/09, Lampedusa resembled an occupied rock at times. As many as 1,500 military troops and police were dispatched to the island to keep the refugees under control and to protect the local population. Does a similar situation lie ahead?

Maroni and Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini have first and foremost asked for vigorous help from the European Union.

Maroni warned that the political earthquake in North Africa could have devastating consequences for Europe, via Italy. Frattini called for a “Marshall Plan” for North Africa to eradicate the causes of the exodus.

Frattini’s proposal is not really new. Up to now, however, financial aid of this nature has landed mainly in national leaders’ bank accounts. What happens as a result of the region’s unrest and upheaval remains to be seen.

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