Desperate refugees descend on Italy

Italy is boosting security on its borders to stop a surge in illegal immigration. Thousands of refugees from North Africa are fleeing to the country, their numbers growing as the violence spreads.

No home, no job and no guarantees – the life of a refugee.

“I had to leave because I couldn't even buy food. I have no money,” said Khaled, a refugee.

A familiar story is taking place in Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea, around 80 miles from the coast of North Africa. It’s always been the main route for refugees, but since the recent revolution in Tunisia it has been swamped by thousands desperate for a better life in Europe who are willing to risk all.

Khaled says the tiny boat they sailed on got into a storm and sank. He survived, but six others drowned.

Some of the boats which were used by the refugees to get to Lampedusa have signs on them from the authorities saying their use is prohibited by Italian law. Nevertheless, even though the initial condition of those boats is far from sea worthy, up to 200 people cram on each one.

Italy and Tunisia used to have an agreement under which most Tunisian refugees were intercepted before even reaching the island. But now that the government has been overthrown, the floodgates have opened.

“We were not ready for this,” said Lampedusa’s mayor, Bernardino de Rubeis.

According to Lampedusa's mayor, it is becoming increasingly hard to keep the situation under control with scuffles between immigrants and police.

“There have already been cases of robbery and vandalism. It's really hard to identify them – some of them may be criminals or even terrorists,” said Rubeis.

Most of the refugees are housed at a center where they are provided with basic help, but it's equipped only for 800 people.

“We brought in additional staff members, including police and even psychiatrists – one hundred people in total, but that's still not enough!” said Federico Maralliota, the current director of the refugee center.

With a wave of violent political unrest sweeping North Africa and the Middle East, Italy is warning of an exodus of biblical proportions. It’s calling for EU cash to help handle the influx of refugees. But for now, Rome is planning to deploy its army to the island to help guard the gateway to Europe.

­Fabrizio Tassinari from the Danish Institute for International Studies believes that, even before the uprisings in the Middle East, the prospects of massive immigration have always been Europe’s worst nightmare.

“In real terms it has never been substantial, we have always been below 30,000 possible entries every year. Clearly the overthrowing of the governments poses a whole new set of issues. What governments will be able to do depends on their ability to actually co-ordinate among some of the governments that are mostly affected,”
he said.

The issue of immigration in general has played very well lately into the domestic debates of many European countries however, despite the latest talk about the failure of multiculturalism, Tassinari thinks that multiculturalism is here to stay.

“The question is how governments cope with it [multiculturalism] and in a way you cannot say that the answers so far have been convincing, judging at least by the rise of right-wing populist parties throughout Western Europe,” he said.