The Mafia's pounds 400 entry ticket to Fortress Europe

Click to follow
It could not have been a more eloquent illustration of the problem. Hours before senior government and police officials convened on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa yesterday for an emergency meeting on immigration, nearly 80 North Africans were stopped trying to land their fishing boats on the island's wind-swept shores.

They were the latest in a veritable wave of immigrants, almost certainly all illegal, who have made the same journey from Sfax in Tunisia to the remote, rocky island in the past few months to enter Western Europe at what is generally reckoned to be one of its easiest entry points.

Although they were stopped by the police and arrested, the ragged, weather-battered Maghrebins who arrived on Lampedusa at dawn could safely assume they would be free in a matter of hours. According to a well-worn ritual, suspected illegals are routinely shipped from Lampedusa to the nearest large police station (conveniently located in Porto Empedocle in Sicily, several nautical miles closer to civilisation), given an expulsion order and told they have 15 days to make their own way out of the country. Inevitably, they just disappear, either choosing to stay in Italy or else moving on to Germany or France.

This is the absurd immigration policy that has made Italy highly unpopular with co-signatories of the Schengen agreement and which has so far prevented it from being admitted to the club of EU nations operating a policy of open borders among themselves, coupled with tight controls on outsiders. Italy hopes to become a full member of the Schengen group by March but has yet to tighten up its border policies in any significant way.

Italian politicians, especially on the left, and the moderate Catholic parties now in power, appear reluctant to impose any immigration policy for fear that they will be accused of repressing the weak and of helping to create a xenophobic "fortress Europe". This attitude, however, effectively takes immigration policy out of the hands of government and into the control of Mafia gangs who take payment - in the North Africa's case around pounds 400 per head - in exchange for organising the boat trips.