Hostility to migrants increases in Italy
During the night of August 16 a boat with 312 refugees set off from Libya (including 59 women and four children) and landed on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa.
The Italian border police, the Guardia di Finanza, had rescued the boat with a patrol boat a few miles from the coast. The number of refugees and asylum seekers landing in Italy since the uprising against the brutal rule of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has increased dramatically. The crisis has forced Italian authorities to declare a state of ”humanitarian emergency”.
There are currently 2,000 migrants awaiting transfer to accommodation in other parts of Italy on an island with a population of just 4,500.
The role of the Catholic charity Caritas Italia has been decisive in coming to the aid of the desperate Libyans. Since the first week of the North African crisis Caritas — which means charity — has guaranteed the presence of its staff in Lampedusa, working in support of the local parish involved in caring for those who had landed on the island.
A useful programme has also started to monitor the activation of accommodation sites for the immigrants. In particular, Caritas Italia is working to support the network called ‘reception machine’ that operates on the island, and secondarily to support other institutions working in the field.
At the moment, Caritas is working with other non-governmental partners, in particular with Save the Children, to care for unaccompanied children in the centres of Lampedusa.
Unfortunately for unaccompanied children, it is and will continue to be very hard to find appropriate accommodation on the Italian mainland, and, therefore, long stay situations are likely for minors arriving on the island without a parent or guardian.
(Right: Migrants from North Africa arrive by boat, escorted by two members of the Italian border police. Photo: CNS)
According to Caritas, the immigrant population in Italy is also increasing in general and has now reached the threshold of five million. But, if the number of immigrants is growing, so too is the fear of the Italian people as well as attitudes of hostility, mistrust and closure towards them.
According to the annual report on immigration, presented last month by Caritas, the effects of the global financial crisis are leading Italians to react more and more negatively towards the presence of immigrants.
The Catholic Church’s position about this problem is clear, and calls from Pope Benedict XVI and other senior Church leaders for respect and welcome for immigrants have been frequent: ”The immigrant is a human being, different in culture and tradition but he or she must be respected,” and ”violence should never be the way to solve the difficulties for anyone” were the Pope’s responses after violent clashes in the southern city of Rosarno last year.
Hundreds of immigrants, most of them Africans employed illegally as labourers, took to the streets after two of them were shot at with air rifles by unidentified gunmen.
Demonstrators set fire to cars, smashed windscreens and attacked local shops before police intervened, leading to further clashes that left several of the demonstrators wounded.
So tension that was mounting even before the Arab Spring forced the Lampedusa situation to reach crisis point.
The Italian government of prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has adopted a markedly different approach than the Church or Caritas.
Just last month his cabinet approved a draft law that provides for the repatriation of all illegal immigrants, and for a longer stay for would-be asylum seekers at identification centres from six to 18 months.
The Vatican has also frequently clashed with the statements of one of the parties in the government coalition, the Lega Nord (which has frequently been accused of xenophobia).
Senator Roberto Calderoli, a minister without portfolio, has more-or-less accused the Holy See of having some responsibility for the deaths of illegal migrants who died while trying to cross the sea to Italy.
Journey of hope
By opposing the Italian government’s strict policies, Mr Calderoli argues, the Vatican is encouraging would-be immigrants to embark on a ”journey of hope” that leads to death for many.
It is not just the Vatican that the Italian government has been feeling the heat from.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has expressed concern that new laws may lead to a situation where someone who genuinely needs to claim political asylum could be sent back.
Nor has the European Union (EU) or indeed France been helpful in the crisis and many Italians feel their country is being left alone by the EU to deal with the situation when other member states ought to be assisting. Repeated appeals to the EU by Italian president Giorgio Napolitano have evidently fallen on deaf ears.
France, for its part, partially blocked the border with Italy at Ventimiglia in a bid to block immigrants from entering France.
Some observers have criticised the move insisting that it potentially breaches the Schengen Agreement that guarantees free movement within the signatory states.
Both Mr Berlusconi and French president Nicholas Sarkozy have since met and agreed a willingness to review the principles of the Schengen accord.
But apart from the political gesturing, what of the 2,600 desperate migrants on La
mpedusa? Italy, currently mired in financial worries, looks with very little interest on the Lampedusa issue.