Migrants risk all to step on Italy's toe

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FOR a while last week, coastguards on Lampedusa, Italy's most southern island, 60 miles from Tunisia, thought their prayers were answered - there seemed to be no more illegal immigrants arriving by sea. By Friday evening, however, the flow had resumed. Fifty-eight further people arrived on a single boat to swell the 4,000 or so who had already pitched up on the island's shores this year.

Crammed into a barely seaworthy fishing vessel, the immigrants - known as clandestini - had paid about 1m lire (pounds 350) to risk the precarious crossing to what they hoped would be jobs and prosperity in Europe. Hajuz, a Moroccan, said: "I arranged it through a man I met in a bar. The guy who sailed us across isn't here. He had left on another boat before we were picked up. We've been at sea for six days."

This, say local officials, is improbable. In good weather the voyage takes about 15 hours; with an unfavourable wind it can last three days. "We believe that about 20 per cent of all those who set out never make it, however. The weather around here can change fast," said Salvatore Orami, head of the harbourmaster's office, "This is the worst year ever. As many clandestini arrived here in July as in the whole of 1997. There are well-established routes now and the whole business is much more organised. Unless we get more co-operation from across the Mediterranean, it's a problem which is not going to go away."

As coastguard vessels kept up their vigil, police in southern Italy struggled to deal with the fall-out from a lack of co-operation which, coupled with a tougher immigration law, has causedunrest at many of the reception centres where some 2,000 illegal immigrants are being held pending repatriation.

Until March, when the new law was introduced, clandestini were seen by magistrates who gave them two weeks to gohome. Most took advantage of that time to vanish northwards.

Now, they are held in reception centres for up to 30 days, during which time they are identified and, in theory, sent to their countries of origin. But, interned in makeshift holding centres, when they had expected to to join family and friends in prosperous north Italy or elsewhere in Europe, previously placid clandestini have turned into furious mobs. "Tempers become frayed easily when they are put in caravans in 40-degree heat or more, and held there for weeks, not knowing what will become of them. There's nothing else we can do short of letting them loose. It simply wasn't what they bargained for," said one policeman on Lampedusa.

In the Sicilian town of Agrigento, camp beds were set on fire and scuffles broke out early last week, while in Caltanissetta, police fired live ammunition into the air to try to prevent a mass breakout. Local authorities said all but two of the 90 who escaped were caught later.

Yesterday, seven police officers and three Tunisians were in hospital after a group of illegal immigrants broke out of a detention centre in Syracuse, Sicily. Forty Tunisians at a centre made a break for freedom late on Friday. All but six were recaptured.

On Lampedusa, the reception centre was downgraded to a short-stay facility on Friday after the 146 inmates rioted the night before. In the disturbance, 19were arrested, 30 were injured, and all the occupants were sent to some of the better equipped centres now springing up around Sicily and on the mainland.

The new law has stemmed the flow of immigrants. In the three months after the rules were established, 16,000 were sent home, or had their vessels turned back mid-way, the Interior Ministry said. But that success has occurred mainly in the Adriatic,where Albania has been co-operating with Italian patrols to block speed boats, ferrying illegal immigrants, before they leave national waters.

Elsewhere, regulations are more difficult to implement. Most immigrants who make it to Italy arrive without documents. Without help to put names and nationalities to faces, the 30 days in reception centres soon passand the detainees are released to cover their tracks and make their way to France or Germany.

Italy's foreign minister, Lamberto Dini, was miffed by his failure to persuade the Tunisian government to sign a "re-admission accord" for assistance in identifying its nationals, as Morocco agreed to last week. "To date, Tunis has been recalcitrant, and has refused to shoulder its responsibilities," he thundered.

But agreements with governments across the Mediterranean may not suffice to stem the flow. "People turn up in Tunisian ports from Africa looking for someone to ferry them across," said Commander Orami. "Often they have to wait, either for a boat, or for the right weather conditions. And, to feed themselves while they wait, they steal. It's certainly not in the interests of local police to keep these characters from leaving."

With the numbers of aspiring immigrants reportedly building up in Tunisian ports, patrol vessels ply southern Italian coasts to prevent clandestini slipping through the net and moving through Europe. "Between the fact that so many make it to their destinations anyway, and the fact that other European countries are quick to criticise but very slow to offer concrete help, it's easy to lose faith," a coastguard said. "We feel like we're emptying the ocean with a teaspoon."