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Features

Italy is killing refugees with kindness

The 'mare nostrum' policy has acted as a magnet for boat people; the crisis is only growing

6 September 2014

9:00 AM

6 September 2014

9:00 AM

The next time you eat a fish from the Mediterranean, just remember that it may well have eaten a corpse. As the Italian author Aldo Busi told the press just the other day: ‘I don’t buy fish from the Mediterranean any more for fear of eating Libyans, Somalis, Syrians and Iraqis. I’m not a cannibal and so now I stick with farmed fish, or else Atlantic cod.’ Personally, I prefer my fish natural, fattened on drowned human flesh, but there you go. I take the point.

Foolishly, last October Italy’s left-wing government became the first European Union country to decriminalise illegal immigration and deploy its navy at huge expense to save ‘illegal’ migrants crossing the narrow Sicilian channel in open boats from North Africa (Libya mainly) in order to bring them to Italy and thus the European Union — where most remain. Few get sent back: sent back where, exactly?

The decision to open the floodgates came in a moment of national moral panic after 366 people drowned in a single boat which caught fire and sank a stone’s throw from an idyllic beach on the island of Lampedusa, an exclusive resort favoured by the right-on rich. The dead included a mother who had given birth during the voyage and was still attached to her newborn child when divers found their bodies trapped inside the sunken vessel.

The policy change, driven by a perverted mix of human decency and political correctness, was pure folly: it has acted as a green light to wannabe boat people everywhere, whose numbers soar as the chaos in Africa and the Middle East escalates. The result is an exodus of biblical proportions out of Africa into Italy. So far this year, more than 100,000 boat people have arrived in Italy — two thirds of them brought ashore by the Italian navy. That is more than double the number who arrived in 2011, the previous record year. It is estimated that the total by the end of 2014 will surpass 200,000. So far this year Italy has deported only 10,000.

Italy’s boat people used to originate mostly from sub-Saharan Africa; but — thanks to ‘Mare nostrum’, as the new policy is called — they now also come from the Horn of Africa, Syria, Palestine, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Iraq. The word is out: to get to Europe, get to Italy (via Libya).

To put these numbers into perspective, David Cameron has pledged to reduce net immigration to Britain to ‘tens of thousands’ a year by the next general election in 2015. He still has a very long way to go. According to latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, net immigration into Britain in the year to March 2014 was 243,000.

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Meanwhile, in the Mediterranean, thousands die crossing from North Africa to Italy in flimsy, unseaworthy vessels. A ticket, they say, costs between €1,000 and €2,000. The boat people do not just die by drowning. Those with cheaper tickets, confined to the locked hold of the boats, often die from carbon monoxide poisoning from the engine. Others die from stabbings and beatings as a result of the frequent fights that break out on deck.

According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, 1,600 boat people have died since June — 25 a day, roughly — crossing from North Africa to Italy. That figure is undoubtedly just the tip of the iceberg.

While the macabre crisis being played out in the Sicilian channel is great news for the Mediterranean fish population, it is a disaster for the EU. Italy is unable to cope. Its few temporary stay identification centres are full to the gunnels and it has been forced to house boat people in hotels and council flats. Each boat person costs Italian taxpayers €43 a day, says the government, which is €4.3 million a day for this year’s 100,000 (so far) alone.

Two weeks ago, a group of 100 boat people, who had been sent to a three-star hotel with pool in Sardinia, complained about Italian food, Italian mosquitoes and Italian heat. All but four then absconded from the hotel and disappeared off into the Sardinian countryside. If the boat people apply for political asylum, they can stay in Italy until their case is dealt with, but they are unable to work legally. Their latest ruse, however, is to refuse to say who they are, in order to leave Italy and reach a country whose welfare system is more generous and accessible — such as Britain or Germany. Police sources told the Milan daily Il Giornale the other day: ‘We cannot control them any more. We cannot even identify them.’ Increasingly, the police just dump coachloads of them at big stations such as Milan with no money or documents — and buona notte, arrivederci.

I was recently in the small frontier town of Ventimiglia en route for the Cote d’Azur by train. The station and forecourt area were chock-a-bloc with black and brown faces. ‘They want to get to France,’ a taxi driver explained. On my train from Italy to France there were no passport controls — thanks to the Schengen Agreement — and during the journey no one checked my train ticket.

Italy insists, with justification, that this is a collective European Union problem; but as so often — as indeed with the euro itself, for example — it is every man for himself.

Last week, the interior minister Angelino Alfano went to Brussels to thrash it all out with the bureaucrats of the Commission. Europe would do more to help Italy, it was then announced. Well, we have heard all that before. Alfano did at least get a small concession: permission from Brussels to destroy the boats that have brought across the boat people. Incredible as it may seem, this hasn’t happened until now.

As for the boats’ crews — the scafisti — their usual trick is to mingle with the crowd and pretend to be boat people themselves. Yet even if identified, they are locked up only for a couple of months and then repatriated and so are able to return to work.

A couple of years ago, I saved an illegal immigrant who was a 21-year-old orphan who had walked from Nigeria to Libya and got an open boat across to Sicily. His name was Tony and he was a Christian, and I was in a bar in Rimini when he came up to try and flog me packets of tissues. There was something about his eyes that got me and so I gave him €500 and found him a lawyer. He is now married to an Italian. But he, Tony, is different. He is personal.

There are no easy political solutions. Silvio Berlusconi, when prime minister, did a deal with Colonel Gaddafi to stop the boats setting off from Libya. It worked. But the deal went up in smoke when ‘we’ got rid of the colonel. Now, thanks to us, Libya is in meltdown.

Spain especially, Greece too, and even the Maltese, use force to keep out migrants. Just what, I wonder, would David Cameron do if confronted by an armada of boat people coming across the Channel?

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