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Italy's migrant crackdown sparks political tensions
Thu Sep 17, 2009 9:58pm EDT
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By Daniel Flynn and Ian Simpson
ROME (Reuters) - The deaths of 73 African migrants who drifted for three weeks in the Mediterranean without rescue have heightened concern about Italy's crackdown on immigration, opening cracks in its ruling coalition and a rift with Brussels.
Five survivors, picked up off the Italian island of Lampedusa, said their grey dinghy left Libya carrying 78 people. A day later, the motor died: two pregnant girls, raped by traffickers, were among the first to die of thirst and exposure.
Italy is the first landing-point in Europe for many migrants from Africa and tragedies in the Mediterranean have become a fixture of the migration season, but since Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi toughened its immigration laws, things have changed.
The migrants said a dozen fishing boats passed but only one answered their calls, throwing food but refusing to board.
"There used to be competition among fishermen to save lives, but...with Italy's new law making immigration a crime, they've become too afraid," said Laura Boldrini of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. "The Mediterranean has become a No Man's Land."
In Italy, the survivors were placed under guard. Unless they win asylum, they may face detention under legislation passed in July making it a felony to be an illegal immigrant or help one.
That followed a deal Italy struck with Libya in May enabling it to return migrants stopped in international waters to Libya: the UNHCR has said that arrangement, the fruit of Berlusconi's closer ties with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, consigns hundreds of asylum-seekers to inhumane camps in North Africa.
Rome's hard line has strained relations with the European Commission, which last month called for an investigation into the repatriations to Libya. Berlusconi threatened to block all EU business unless Commission spokespeople were silenced.
"We need more than words," Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said last month, denying Italy was responsible for the tragedy. He said frontier states were being unfairly burdened by illegal migration to the 27-nation bloc: "This is a European problem."
Current EU President Sweden has vowed to discuss migration at an October summit, but analysts say it could be hard to curb mounting racism in Italy as the global crisis ups unemployment.
FAR RIGHT NOT MARGINAL
Italy's crackdown was promoted by the far-right Northern League, a lynchpin of Berlusconi's coalition, following a 75 percent leap in migrants arriving by sea last year to 37,000.
The measures, which include legalizing citizens' patrols to enforce law and order, cut the number of migrants landing in south Italy between May and August to less than a tenth of last summer's 10,000 and struck a chord with many Italians, worried by mass immigration and rising crime.
One TV poll said 71 percent thought the five survivors of last month's boat tragedy should be tried as illegal immigrants.
"There is no doubt that racism is becoming more visible... and it's going to get worse: partly because of the economy," said James Walston, professor of Italian politics at the American University in Rome. "It's dangerous because the far right in most countries is marginal. Here it is not." Continued...
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