Stop rescuing the boat people, Italian right demands

The Italian navy is helping run a taxi service says MP as biblical exodus from Africa tops EU election agenda

Column LAST UPDATED AT 08:22 ON Wed 23 Apr 2014

IN WHAT Italian navy officials warn could become an exodus of biblical proportions, nearly 1,200 boat migrants were rescued off the coast of Sicily over the Easter weekend, prompting Italy’s centre-right to call for the costly rescue operations to be scrapped.

Nearly 22,000 boat migrants have arrived on Italy’s shores since the year’s start, more than 10 times the number compared with the same time last year.  Last October, Italy launched the naval rescue mission Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) with the backing of the EU’s border control entity Frontex, after a migrant boat caught fire and capsized off the island of Lampedusa.

The deaths of more than 364 refugees briefly shined the spotlight on what is an ongoing, epic human drama unfolding in Sicily, whose pristine coastlines are UNESCO world heritage sites that used to make headlines just for being some of the best beaches in the world.  Today, school gymnasiums, hospitals and theatres across this narrow swathe of southeastern Sicily have been transformed into makeshift refugee reception centers.

But there is no more room. And yet the Italian navy warned earlier this month that up to 600,000 migrants from Africa and the Middle East are massing on Libyan shores, preparing for a way out.

Italian authorities and aid agencies say they are Syrians and Eritreans fleeing war. Many also come from sub-Saharan Africa - men, women and children with stories of terrifying, painful odysseys many months long.  Some come with a plan to reunite with family or friends waiting for them in Europe. Others are shuttled to refugee centres spread across Italy.

There are those who simply walk away from the centres, sometimes without shoes and carrying everything they own in a plastic sack, and start looking for passage by car or train north.

The constant Mediterranean patrols are estimated to cost Italy E9million a month. Every week, naval carriers ferry out helicopters manned with infra-red sensors to fly over heavily trafficked sea routes. Military ships, submarines, drones and smaller rescue boats also patrol the waters.  

But while Italy’s naval mission is a well-oiled machine, so is the smuggling racket, with dedicated “mother ships” that  tow rickety old fishing boats stuffed with migrants from northern Africa as close as they can to Italian waters before cutting them loose and zipping back across the Med.

Yesterday, centre-right Forza Italia MP Maurizio Gasparri publicly demanded an end to the EU-backed naval mission, calling it a “maniacal” taxi service in which smugglers alert the Italian navy, so that even more illegal immigrants are brought ashore. The operation is actually aiding the “merchants of death”, Gasparri argued. Members of the anti-immigration Northern League also joined the calls to put a stop to the mission.

The timing is no coincidence: we are just a month away from the EU elections when immigration will top the agenda across Europe – just look at today’s Daily Mail story about UK border guards being told they have no right to ask EU citizens how long they plan to stay in Britain.

In Italy, which will elect 73 MEPs, it means that politicians who expressed sorrow for the human suffering on Lampedusa last October are now ready to yank away the lifesaver for political advantage.

But suspending Mare Nostrum won’t punish, stop or weaken the Mediterranean people-smugglers. It will just put thousands of already fragile lives at further risk. Mare Nostrum saves lives. That said, Italy cannot afford to continue bearing the major financial brunt of such an epic migratory pattern. And when it does successfully rescue migrants and bring them ashore, then what?

There's one point everyone in Italy seems to agree on: Italy’s immigration problem is Europe’s immigration problem. Many who make it to Italy don’t stay here. Just ask anyone who’s heard the newly arrived inquire “Train Cologne?” at the railway station. ·