Italy is failing north Africa’s refugees

Posted by admin on Apr 6th, 2011, Wednesday 6 April 2011 10.00 B

The dramatic political changes of the Arab spring and the civil war in Libya have dominated British headlines for the last few months. Much less coverage, at least in the English-speaking press, has been given to the crisis closer to home, as thousands of Tunisians and Libyans fleeing north Africa arrived on Lampedusa, an Italian island seen by many as an entrance to Europe. Kept at the island’s port, the refugees built themselves tents from plastic sheets and waited for the government to prepare its plans. The conditions at the camp have been severely criticised by NGOs – particularly Médecins Sans Frontières, the Red Cross, and Amnesty International – as a nightmare unfit for human existence. The migrants themselves have complained of being treated as animals. Last Thursday and Friday almost 2,000 refugees were transferred to Taranto in the southern region of Puglia, and the remaining 4,000 on the island are gradually being taken elsewhere. Last night, a boat carrying 200 refugees capsized off the coast of the island; 150 people are still missing.

The reaction from Italy’s leaders has been unequivocal: the refugees’ presence is only temporary. Likening the crisis to a “human tsunami” engulfing the country, a tsunami made up of “5,000 Tunisian citizens who are not particularly acceptable”, Silvio Berlusconi has offered deportation as the only resolution, promising to get the migrants out of the way and life on Lampedusa back to normal in a matter of days.

This response should not come as a surprise. For the past two decades the political debate on immigration and asylum in Italy has been dominated by those equating the presence of foreigners to increased crime and insecurity, calling for the closing of Italy’s borders, a stepping up of internal security measures and the deportation of undocumented migrants. In the current situation this discourse of security and expulsion has permeated the government’s practice.

This explains the Italian foreign minister’s current attempt to find any willing takers on to which to pass the north African migrants. However, his hands are tied by European Union legislation, namely the Dublin convention of 1990, stating that applications for asylum in the EU must be processed in the country of arrival. So, despite the fact that many of the migrants are not even intending to remain in Italy, with thousands attempting to reach relatives in France, they are unable to cross the border until their applications have been processed.

The Italian government faces a dilemma. Its goal is to get rid of the migrants without granting thousands of visas. But in order to pass migrants on to other EU member states, it must first grant asylum status and permission to reside in Italy. These are thousands of the very foreigners they have spent so long trying to keep out.

The answer for the Berlusconi government is to send them back to Africa. However, in ensuring that the migrant’s presence is temporary, the Berlusconi government has failed to ensure adequate levels of care in Italy. Indeed, although the arrival of the refugees has been called a humanitarian crisis, the response has had little of the “humanitarian” about it.

Reinforcing the temporary nature of their presence, the migrants are to be housed in camps far removed from Italian society to await their deportation orders. But while NGOs complain about a shortage of drinking water, a lack of sanitation and poor sleeping arrangements, the interior minister Roberto Maroni promises increased surveillance, an increased police presence by 150%, a horse-back security force to patrol the camp perimeter, and other measures included in a “security pact” with regional government.

This is not a humanitarian response. This is a military-security mission designed to ensure the foreigners are kept separate and sent away as quickly as possible. By concentrating on the expulsion of migrants through the use of public order and security measures, the very rights, freedoms and humanitarian assistance that Europe’s leaders claim to be supporting in north Africa have been denied within Europe’s borders. But with more refugees expected to leave Libya over the coming weeks, this should not just be seen as a problem for Rome but a challenge for Brussels, too.

• This article was amended on 7 April 2011. The original said that the refugees were being kept at the island’s port of Manduria. This has been corrected.

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