Italy Pushes For Steps to End Illegal Immigration Problem
By Sabina Castelfranco
31 March 2009
(PHOTO: Italian Coast Guard boat carrying some would-be immigrants, rescued at sea, reaches port of tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, 29 Mar 2009)
Italian officials are pressing for steps to prevent a repeat of the tragedy involving hundreds of migrants from Africa who are missing and believed to have drowned in the Mediterranean over the weekend.
The migrants were cramped in un-seaworthy vessels which left Libya for Italy. Italy's Interior Minister is hopeful that these crossings will come to an end in mid-May.
The problem of illegal immigrants reaching Malta from Libya could be resolved if a declaration made by Italian Home Affairs Minister Roberto Maroni is put in place.
The most common route for these desperate people is from Libya to the southern Italian islands of Lampedusa, Pianosa and Sicily. Italian authorities have been pressing Libya to crack down on illegal migrants.
Minister Maroni says an agreement is in place with Libya that envisages the start of joint Italian-Libyan patrols in front of the Libyan coast on May 15. He added that on that day he expects the flow of migrants coming to Italy from Libya will stop and the problem will be resolved.
The exact death toll from this weekend's incident may never be known but twenty have been confirmed dead and just 23 of the African migrants were rescued. At least 200 are still missing after departing from the Libyan coast and sailing into stormy seas and strong winds.
According to officials of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Libyan police officials, one vessel capsized last Friday. It had a capacity for 50 people but was carrying 250 and there was no life-saving equipment on board. Those on board were too far from the coast to even attempt to swim to the shore.
Maroni said that unfortunately what took place was a tragedy of enormous proportions that was beyond Italy's knowledge and ability to intervene.
Like tens of thousands of every year, the migrants were attempting a risky journey across the Mediterranean from the Libyan coastline in the hope of reaching Italy and a new life.
Many never make it across and this part of the Mediterranean has come to be known “a cemetery without tombstones”. Over 13,000 bodies have been recovered in the last decade.
More than 30,000 migrants are believed to have crossed the Mediterranean in 2008, a 75 percent increase on 2007. The majority end up in detention centers, and are eventually deported. In Libya, there are between 1 million and 1.5 million African irregular migrants, drawn by the need for unskilled labor and hoping to move on to Europe.
The joint patrols form part of a historic friendship accord reached between Rome and Tripoli and signed in August 2008.