When a 9-year-old Somali girl named Asma arrived on the Italian
island of Lampedusa in a rickety boat full of illegal immigrants
earlier this year, she was in shock. She and her parents had watched
helplessly as three of her siblings died during the dangerous
journey across the Mediterranean from Libya.
This summer, Italy has once again been horrified as boatloads of
exhausted refugees limp into its ports, having set out, mostly from
the coast of Libya in North Africa, hoping to sneak into Europe.
Italy, which struggles to patrol its 1,500 miles of porous
coastline, is battling to dispel its image as an easy entry point
onto the Continent. And it is calling on the European Union for
help. After all, once immigrants penetrate Italy or Spain by sea
from North Africa, the new arrivals are free to spread through 15
other European countries whose shared borders are open under the
Schengen border agreement.
"Effectively the Italians and the Spanish are patrolling not just
their own, but Europe's, borders. So the Italians say Europe should
play a bigger part in solving the problem," says Sergio Romano, a
political commentator and former Italian ambassador to Russia.
Italy wants Europe to draw up a common immigration policy,
creating joint European border patrols, immigrant quotas, and strict
asylum guidelines. But with immigration an increasingly politicized
issue across Europe, individual countries are unlikely to reach
Last month, Italy and Germany raised the idea of opening
"reception centers" inside Libya to process asylum requests and fly
failed asylum seekers back to their country of origin - other
African and Middle Eastern nations. European lawmakers and human
rights advocates have balked at the concept, warning that it would
create "concentration camps" in the desert of North Africa.
Italian lawmaker Rocco Buttiglione, who will be in charge of EU
policy on asylum and immigration once he is sworn in as justice
commissioner next month, insists that the centers would help people
find legal ways into Europe and avoid falling into the hands of
criminals smuggling people.
EU figures estimate around 500,000 illegal immigrants arrive in
Europe each year from all over the world. The Italian Interior
Ministry estimates that immigration into Europe is worth more than
$3 billion per year, the trip across the Mediterranean alone costing
as much as 2,000 euros ($2,400) per person.
Libya has yet to comment on the proposed camps, but president
Muammar Qaddafi has been eager to engage Europe on the issue. …