- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 14, 2004

ROME — Wrenching TV images of emaciated African refugees arriving on a frail wooden boat, and tales of dead passengers — including a 1-year-old — have sparked new demands to address an immigration crisis throughout Western Europe.

Italy alone faces an estimated 2 million people waiting to cross from Libya — a short but treacherous boat ride across the Mediterranean.

“This umpteenth tragedy at sea dramatically raises the need to govern the migration process through wide-ranging international agreements,” Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu said of Sunday’s incident off the southern coast of Sicily.

Disaster struck again yesterday off Spain’s Canary Islands when a small boat packed with Africans capsized in rough seas, leaving at least one person dead and 32 missing, authorities said.

A police patrol had intercepted the boat and was about 50 yards away when some of the undocumented immigrants stood up, causing their vessel to capsize, the Interior Ministry said.

In Italy’s most recent incident, a cargo ship came across the small, wooden boat carrying more than 70 Africans south of Sicily and towed it to the island’s southeastern port of Syracuse.

One of those aboard died on arrival, and survivors told police that several others perished during the journey and were thrown overboard.

Italian police estimated that 100 persons, mostly from Liberia, boarded the ship in North Africa. But only 73 were alive when the boat was discovered.

Christopher Hein, head of the Italian Refugee Council, said more than 5,000 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe since 1996, according to his organization’s estimates. Many more die on their way from West Africa or the Horn of Africa to Libya, he said.

“This is not a question that Italy could possibly solve alone, but only in the context of European Union policy,” Mr. Hein said. “It is really shameful that the EU has not found any efficient means to tackle the problem for years and years now.”

The 25-nation European Union has no common policy on immigration matters. Plus, the open-borders policy that many of its nations share means that once you are inside, you can slip from one country to another without checks.

“If an immigrant succeeds in setting foot in Italy or Spain, he can be in Paris or Berlin or Madrid within a few hours,” analyst Sergio Romano said. “To me, it seems the best way to react is through a European base.”

The Italian Interior Ministry says the number of illegal immigrants has dropped considerably in the first half of this year, but thousands continue to come into Italy and elsewhere.

Mr. Pisanu, the Italian interior minister, met Thursday with his German counterpart, Otto Schily, in Tuscany and discussed the idea of immigration centers in North Africa, where EU officials could assess applicants before they set foot on the continent.

Italians have a strong history of migration themselves, but now that the influx is reversed, many fear that newcomers with different cultures and religions will wreak havoc on their way of life.

“Because of this, there are fewer jobs for Italians. And what’s more, many of those immigrants who got in illegally just get involved crime,” said 60-year-old housewife Vincenza Fonte.

Such views are common but not universal. Others are strongly affected by the Vatican’s repeated expressions of distress at the plight of needy migrants and its calls for charity.

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