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Leading article: Europe has an obligation to these desperate African refugees

If Italy needs assistance to deal with migration flows, other EU states should provide it

Fortress Europe has closed its gates. This week a ferry left Tripoli carrying 1,800 people. The vessel was first turned away from Malta. Then it was refused permission to put ashore at Lampedusa, the small island south of the Sicilian mainland. The passengers on this vessel are not economic migrants, but refugees from a war zone. Most are believed to be North Africans who were working in Tripoli when the revolt against Muammar Gaddafi's regime began. Their mistake is to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The risks to which they are now exposed are plain enough. On Sunday a boat carrying migrants that had left the southern Libyan port of Zarzis capsized off Tunisia. Some 35 people are feared to have drowned. One of the survivors reported that a boat that passed them in the water failed to stop.

The French far-right politician Marine Le Pen was in Rome yesterday, having visited Lampedusa the previous day. Unsurprisingly, the National Front leader's compassion was directed towards the residents of the Italian island, rather than the refugees on the arriving boats. She advocated turning migrants back at sea before they reach Europe. Yet, as the incident amply demonstrates, this is already taking place.

Indeed, Italy has been following such a disgraceful policy for years. In 2009 the Italian navy turned back a boat of refugees from international waters to Libya without performing any screening of the passengers to see whether they were in need of medical attention. This was the course laid out in the reprehensible deal signed between the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and Colonel Gaddafi in 2008. The Libyan dictator promised to prevent migrants passing through the country in return for Italian payments. And if migrants made it on to boats, the Italian navy would have the right to deliver them back into the clutches of the Gaddafi regime. Human Rights Watch has credible testimony from migrants who claim to have been abused by the Libyan authorities after being handed over.

The Italian government has warned of a migration of "biblical proportions" as a result of the present turmoil in North Africa. That is an echo of the threat of Gaddafi some weeks ago that the consequence of his fall would be an invasion of Europe by Africans. Some 21 boats have arrived on Lampedusa this week from Tunisia, carrying 1,600 migrants. Some 9,000 people in total have arrived since January. That is a significant movement of people, but hardly an intolerable influx, let alone a biblical exodus.

The crisis does serve to emphasise why it is in Europe's interests for the Gaddafi regime, whose belligerence is the reason for the outflow, to come to an end. It also highlights the folly of the Western policy of hugging this ruthless dictator close for so many years. If Lampedusa and Italy need assistance to deal with migration flows from Africa, other EU states should provide it. Last month's proposal from southern European states for an EU solidarity fund was sensible. Britain must do its bit, especially after our role in arming Gaddafi. So must France and Germany. European states must share the responsibility and cost of our collective humanitarian obligations.

There is much uncertainty about what happens next. We do not yet know the size of the migrant outflow, which depends on how long the revolt in Libya continues, or where it spreads next. We do not know what the total costs will be, either. But there is one thing of which we can be sure: to turn back boats of desperate people is an act that shames our entire continent.