Monday, 18 May 2009

Independent: Italy demands an EU summit on immigration

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini announced yesterday that Italy would be demanding an EU summit on immigration.

Speaking at Trieste, the minister was not at all clear whether Italy would be demanding a special EU summit or whether it will demand that immigration be discussed at the 23 June EU Council meeting.

Whatever the context, such a high-profile summit will only serve to exacerbate the public spat between Italy and Malta over the handling of immigration.

On 7 May, the crew of an Italian patrol boat on duty between Lampedusa and Malta were told that the 227 men, women and children they had just pulled to safety from their unseaworthy boat were to be instantly deported back to Libya. To keep the frightened migrants quiet they lied to them about their final destination.

After more than 500 people had been intercepted and sent to Libya, Italy’s interior minister Roberto Maroni proudly announced a “historic turn” in Italy’s migration management policies. All thanks, he said, to the agreement signed last year with the Libyan government.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees and a Vatican spokesman have appealed, in vain, to the Italian authorities to desist from deporting migrants intercepted on the high seas back to Libya because of the risk of denying legitimate asylum-seekers their right to protection. Among the 200 people on board the last boat to be stopped, most of whose passengers were African, there were two pregnant women and two small babies.

Speaking yesterday, Mr Frattini proposed the setting up of a European border guard to do duty in the Mediterranean. He also proposed that asylum requests should be handled and decided immediately on board the ships that daily pluck asylum seekers from a watery grave. Unfortunately, he added, Europe does not have a unified approach to the question, such as the US has, nor agreement on those countries from where asylum seekers are not accepted. As it is, he added, asylum seekers are choosing countries that would be better placed to accept them. Only three or four asylum requests are accepted out of 100 requests: Italy cannot let in 100 asylum seekers from which only three or four would be accepted.

But this is election time and Silvio Berlusconi and his right-wing government have put the fight against illegal immigration at the heart of their campaign for the European elections. If the Vatican calls, Berlusconi usually answers, especially if the Pope calls for curbs on civil liberties such as denying gay couples the right to civil unions or attempting to block a paraplegic woman’s right to die. But the Prime Minister has turned a deaf ear to the Catholic Church’s calls for more humane and inclusive policies towards immigrants. Berlusconi has declared that he will continue to send boats back to Libya because he doesn’t want Italy to become a “multi-ethnic society”.

There is a certain déjà vu atmosphere here: European governments didn’t want to look soft on illegal immigration and they let Berlusconi summarily deport over 1,000 people back to Libya in 2004.

Meanwhile, completely ignored by the Maltese media, Italian government spokesmen have continued with their relentless onslaught on Malta over the past days.

Under-Secretary of State for Internal Affairs Alfredo Mantovano told Il Tempo that while he did not want to declare war on Malta (“our friends in Malta”) he couldn’t accept that the Maltese could turn back an Italian ship with refugees and refuse to accept them. “Malta is getting our funds to help save refugees from the sea. The EU gives us around e20 million a year, but we save them, and the Maltese don’t.”

In an interview to Il Giornale, Mr Mantovano was even more direct: Malta cannot take EU funds due to its large SAR area and then refuse to shoulder the consequent burden. Referring to Minister Mifsud Bonnici’s recent praise of Italy, Mr Mantovano said the impression (given by Malta) is that if Italy helps Malta solve its problems, either by taking in the refugees or by sending them back to Libya, all is well and good, but when Malta is called upon to do its duty, it turns its face the other way.

He also added that Malta receives, proportionately, more EU funds than Italy does.

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