Peter Popham: Two leaders united in prejudice

Gaddafi and Berlusconi share more than a love of women and display

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They are the oddest pair in international politics, and this week Silvio Berlusconi and Muammar Gaddafi have been united in Rome to celebrate the end of the colonial era and the beginning of a new age of prosperity and co-operation for their two nations.

They stared out glumly at the guard of honour, Silvio in his usual navy double-breasted, Gaddafi done up like a Savoy doorman with his oversize epaulettes and under-size cap, a large photograph of colonial era Libyan freedom fighters pinned provocatively to his chest.

It was a study in contrasting styles, but there is more that links these two powerful men than divides them. Both have a thing about beautiful women, Gaddafi surrounding himself with his Amazonian bodyguard, Berlusconi inviting young models en masse to his Sardinian villa to frolic in the showers. Both have an undisguised contempt for parliament: Gaddafi never misses an opportunity to dismiss representative democracy while Berlusconi has recently described the Italian parliament as "useless".

For the tidy sum of $5bn Berlusconi has bought peace with Libya. It's a lot of money, but the deal promises well for both countries. It guarantees Italy a reliable supply of Libyan gas, and Libya a world-class autostrada from one end of the country to the other.

But there is another aspect to the deal which has received less attention in media reports which have been dominated as usual by their outsized personalities. Together they have conspired to brush Italy's biggest immigration problem under a Libyan carpet.

For many years, under the officially ignorant gaze of the Colonel and his cronies – their version of Nelson's "I see no ships" – Libya has been the principal source of illegal immigrants crossing the Mediterranean bound for Europe, the majority making landfall in Lampedusa, the southernmost Italian island halfway across the sea.

Italy has for a long time been trying to persuade Libya to accept Italian navy patrols close to the Libyan coast as a way of deterring the people smugglers' boats from putting out. Now the patrols have begun – and with the encouragement of Italy's hardline Interior minister they have exceeded their original brief, picking up the migrants and dumping them back in Libya.

The UN's refugee agency has protested bitterly: many of the would-be migrants come from countries such as Somalia, it points out, and may have excellent claims on political asylum – and now instead of being able to make such claims they are consigned to Libyan custody, where God only knows what fate they will meet.

But this is not an issue that will to pluck Silvio Berlusconi's heart strings: in a typically wacky recent comment he said the immigrants sent back to Libya were fortunate, because the immigrant reception centres within Italy were "very similar to concentration camps".

Gaddafi is equally unmoved by their plight. At a news conference in Rome this week, he declared: "The Africans do not have problems of political asylum. People who live in the bush [or] the desert don't have political problems... [They] don't have a political identity; they don't even have a personal identity."

The views of both men can be summarised succinctly: who cares what happens to these blacks?

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