Italy Deals with the Boat People

Summer is the tourist season on the southern Italian coastline, but these days its also high season for the illegal immigrants who set off in thousands from Libya. The governments of Italy and neighboring Malta — 60 miles from Italy — have recently been bickering over which of these two EU countries should assume responsibility for receiving the boat people who often arrive bedraggled and near starvation, in leaking boats that barely survive the crossing.

Last year, 35,000 illegal immigrants managed to reach the island of Lampedusa, the first point of contact with Italy — a 75 percent increase over 2007. Earlier this year, with no solution in sight, the Italians began to block the boats at sea and to turn them back, forcing the Maltese, who patrol more or less the same waters, to rescue the abandoned immigrants for humanitarian reasons.

But Malta, with a population of 400,000 inhabiting a 90 square mile rock, has serious space problems, and an angry Maltese government accused Italy of shirking its moral responsibility.

In April, the Italian government changed tactics and began shipping the immigrants back to Libya as soon as they set foot on Italian soil — and at the same time gave the Libyans a number of patrol boats urging them to seal off their own coastline. Throwing the problem back at Libya hardly solves it, however, because the boat people are not Libyans. Most will have trekked across the Sahara to the Libyan coast from poverty stricken African countries — notably Chad, Niger, Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia — in the hope of finding their way to a better life in Europe.

Both Maltese and Italian officials complain of North European indifference within the European Union, where the immigration problem is widely seen as a southern headache; and Italy’s Foreign Minister Franco Frattini has called for a summit of European leaders to nail down community support. Meanwhile, Italy has just made illegal immigration a criminal act, with a fine of up to $15,000 for illegally entering the country. But given that he boat people arrive with scarcely the clothes on their backs, it’s hard to see how the Italians can collect.