Darkness hides migrant flood into Italian underworld

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IT WAS a dark, cloudy night - just the conditions I had been told the smugglers favoured. After a three-hour wait I picked out a fishing boat close to the deserted Carthage beach. It was riding very low in the water because, my Tunisian companion explained, it was crammed to the gunwales with illegal immigrants attempting to reach Italy. As I peered into the gloom with my binoculars, a shaft of moonlight briefly illuminated the little vessel drawing up alongside a larger one anchored off shore.

My Tunisian friend explained that these new "boat people" from all over North Africa would transfer to this powerful motor cruiser, probably owned by the Italian Mafia who increasingly control this lucrative smuggling trade, and reach either the Italian island of Lampedusa or Sicily within four hours, easily outpacing any of the ageing ex-East German Tunisian patrol boats. From there, if not caught and sent back, most immigrants would try to reach France, the former colonial power, where mor e than three million North Africans already live and work, or perhaps Germany, home to another three million Muslims, mainly Turks.

Increasingly, the gangs who are taking over the human smuggling racket into southern and western Europe have jobs already lined up for the migrants, frequently prostitution for the women and low-paid "underground" employment for men.

Police authorities in Lampedusa - who captured 171 immigrants from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco in a single day last autumn - say they caught and repatriated "more than 6,000" illegal immigrants coming from Tunisia by the end of last year. Said one exasperated police chief: "It's the tip of the iceberg - we have no real idea exactly how many slip in, as they also arrive in Sicily and on the coast of mainland Italy - but it's certainly tens of thousands a year." Detection is difficult because Italian-registered boats, favoured by the gangs, attract far less suspicion than foreign vessels.

The opportunistic Italian Mafia has a sophisticated, far-flung organisation with good contacts and the money to bribe its way out of trouble. One Italian customs official explained: "They already have the international network and personnel in place - even money laundering facilities from their other rackets, prostitution, drug smuggling and protection - so it's easy for them to switch to human smuggling. Particularly worrying is the criminal element - they bring extortion, prostitution and blackmail. Some of the migrants work for the gangs illegally, so are hard to track down."

The recent explosive growth of migrant smuggling - more than half a million illegal immigrants are estimated to have clandestinely entered Western Europe over the past two years - is proving a nightmare for ill-prepared and badly equipped immigration authorities and police. They admit that legislation, police methods and intelligence lag far behind what is needed to try and curb the smuggling networks' activities, while recent attempts to form a common deterrent organisation such as the "Europol" initiative have floundered in political squabbles.

Illegal immigration into Europe was until recently a minor problem. But poverty, political persecution and wars in parts of the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Algeria have increased the pressure, while professional gangs have realised the profits tobe made. The risks and penalties for smuggling people are far less than those for smuggling drugs, for instance. Until recently it was not a crime at all in Holland. In countries such as Tunisia and the Czech Republic, returned immigrants are merely fined for the first few attempts. Colonel Pavel, police chief of Usti on the Czech-German border, told me that although he knows who the smuggling gangs are, he does not have the legal powers to arrest them. He said some desperate refugees try up to a dozentimes until they succeed in getting into Germany, even though some are abandoned by unscrupulous guides at the border, where a number have frozen to death. The benefits for smugglers are huge. Passages from Tunis to Italy cost between $500 (£325) and $2,000 (and big motor cruisers can accommodate up to 50). Elsewhere in Europe passages can cost up to $25,000. In some cases the migrants are swindled or die en route - one reason why Spain cracked down ferociously, suc cessfully pressuring Morocco to prevent its nationals leaving by threatening to renege on trade deals.

Spain's crackdown made Tunisia, with its long coastline and proximity to Italy, a major jumping off point for immigrants. Last August's closure of the Moroccan-Algerian border and Paris's decision virtually to stop issuing visas to Algerians has made it the only route for increasingly desperate Algerians. Although so far many of those leaving Tunisia are economic refugees from all over North Africa, the worsening of the three-year-old Algerian civil war, in which 800 civilians are dying every week, caught between fundamentalist terror and a ruthless military regime, is threatening to bring a new dimension to the immigration problem.

"I predict that if the situation goes on deteriorating in Algeria - and if a fundamentalist regime comes to power - then the floodgates will open and we could be talking about millions of refugees. I don't see how Europe will cope," said a senior Westerndiplomat in Tunis.

The increase of immigrants into Europe has political as well as security implications. Liberals in France, Spain and Italy all express the fear that this emotive issue may prove a bonanza for far-right political parties already whipping up nationalistic fervour and xenophobia.

Paris is particularly nervous in the wake of the recent hijacking by Algerian terrorists of an Air France plane and the killing of all four hijackers. The crack Corps Republicaine de Securite is on the alert across the South of France to try to halt infiltration by immigrants from North Africa, including fundamentalist extremists bent on revenge.

In the short term there seems little likelihood that illegal immigration can be curbed. Measures to toughen immigration procedures have had the effect not of reducing the flow but of bringing in the professional smugglers, who always seem to be at least one step ahead of the European authorities who are supposed to combat them.

Europe is braced for more problems. As one young would-be immigrant from Tunisia told me: "I don't know of any poor young Tunisian who doesn't dream of a better life in Europe."