- - Sunday, March 8, 2015

LAMPEDUSA, Italy — This tiny speck of an island — much closer to the North African coast than to Sicily and the rest of Italy — has taken on an outsize role in the debate over illegal immigration, becoming, for many in Italy and across Europe, the face of the migrant crisis and the conduit for exporting Arab instability across the Mediterranean.

Political anarchy and terrorist violence in Libya — last week saw another fatal attempt by migrants fleeing Africa to reach Europe’s shores, in which 10 people drowned and more than 1,000 were picked up by Italian coast guard and navy vessels — is a big factor behind a rising tide of refugees arriving on Italy’s shores, threatening the country’s energy supply and awakening fears that Rome could be the victim of a terrorist attack. Italy says it cannot confront the problems on its own.

The people of this ancient island, the southernmost reach of the Italian state and best known for its beautiful beaches and balmy climate, say their role as a symbol of the greater crisis is not one they relish.

“For most people, when they think about Lampedusa, they think about the refugees and, unfortunately, they think it’s not such a great place for a vacation,” said Damiano Sferlazzo, Lampedusa’s vice mayor. “The truth is the impact of the refugees on the day-to-day life here is minimal. This is a problem of perception.”

Perception is mixed on Lampedusa — between those who believe it is their duty to process and nurse to health the tattered and exhausted refugees now reaching the island by the hundreds and sometimes thousands, and those who blame the arrivals for the island’s economic woes.

“The way I look at it is that this is a small island, and island residents have a tradition of helping out people in need on the open seas,” said 53-year-old Melo Gatani, who operates a small bed-and-breakfast on Lampedusa.

But Mr. Gatani’s view stands in contrast to locals who shout slurs at refugees milling through town, which is a short walk from the processing center Italy has built on the site of a former military base. A few shop owners shoo away groups of young refugees who congregate along Via Roma, the town’s main drag.

“Look, I am not heartless, and I recognize these people are in search of a better life,” said one shop owner, who asked to be identified only as Antonio, “but something has to be done. They are keeping away the paying customers.”

Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti complained recently that the Libya situation was “out of control,” and that her country was bearing the brunt of the cost and administration burden for a threat that affects all of Europe. She said more must be done to address the problem at its source, telling reporters, “The real issue is how to prevent people from leaving.”

The refugees themselves tell harrowing tales of the passages that brought them to Lampedusa. Rough seas on inadequate boats claim the lives of some making the trip. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says about 5 percent of the refugees who set out from across the Mediterranean die en route, up from 2 percent two years ago.

But even before reaching Libya, where most of the boats start out, the migrants pass through as many as five or six countries and pay as much as $5,000 in fees to those who shepherd them along — the equivalent of as much as a decade’s wages in countries like Somalia, Eritrea or Mali, where many were born.

“My whole family sacrificed so I could make this trip,” said 18-year-old Hassan Musa, who arrived in Lampedusa in late February, seven weeks after setting out from his native Somalia. “They are already starting to save so they can send my younger brother.”

The serial unrest sparked by the Arab Spring across North Africa and the Middle East — in Tunisia, Syria, Egypt and Libya, among others — has added a new element to controlling the migrant flow for Lampedusa and other countries along Europe’s southern perimeter. The U.N. estimates that the illegal migrant flow in 2014 included some 42,000 Syrians fleeing that country’s brutal civil war.

Looking for help

The cash-strapped Italian government is looking for help to foot the bill for the rescue operations, processing on Lampedusa, Sicily, and elsewhere and other associated costs. Estimates are that between 50 percent and 80 percent of those who land on Lampedusa ultimately settle elsewhere in Europe, and so the whole European Union should help foot more of the bill, officials in Rome say.

Other countries in Europe also worry that Rome, cash-strapped already because of the struggling Italian economy, cannot afford the kind of screening and intelligence work to weed out potential terrorists in the flood of migrants being processed. The immigration processing centers are short of funds, and basic identifying procedures such as fingerprinting are hit or miss.

“The biggest threat now is the lone wolf scenario, where a jihadi could use the confusion to pass himself off as an asylum-seeker to launch a major incident at one of Europe’s capital cities,” Sebastiano Sali, a scholar in the King’s College London Department of War Studies, told the British newspaper The Express.

Italy is also worried about the threat of terror threats from Libya. The Italian media has speculated that Islamic State-allied militants, who recently released a grisly video showing the beheading of nearly two dozen Egyptian Coptic Christian hostages, might sneak into the country via the processing centers in Lampedusa and elsewhere.

Last year, an Islamic State propaganda magazine called Dabiq ran an image of St. Peter’s Square in Rome with the Syria-based jihadi group’s black-and-white flag flying above it, and a headline reading “The failed crusade.” In February a taped Islamic State threat called Italy, which has not suffered a large-scale terror assault since the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, “the nation signed with the blood of the cross.” The same tape warned that the terrorist group was “south of Rome” in Libya.

“The goal may be to simply use threats to create an atmosphere of fear,” said Sabrina Magris, president of the International University School of Rome and Florence, the only European institution that prepares negotiators for hostage and terror threats. “But the threats should not be underestimated.”

Italy appears to be taking them seriously. In February Rome shuttered its embassy in Tripoli, Libya’s capital, and in early March ships from the Italian navy started patrolling the waters between the two countries.

Officially, the ships are there to safeguard Italy’s commercial and strategic interests, including its energy supply. With continued instability in Russia, energy sector analysts say that Libya, a former Italian colony that has always loomed large in Rome’s strategic and economic policy, has taken on an even greater importance.

Italy knows it cannot confront these issues alone,” said Antonelo Fiorello, an international affairs expert in the political science department at the University of Rome. “The European Union must confront the refugee problems, and it will take an international coalition to bring stability to Libya.”

Some help may be on the way: Bernardino Leon, the U.N.’s envoy for Libya, over the weekend threw his support behind the idea of a European Union-level naval blockade of Libya to prevent weapons, oil and terrorist recruits from reaching Europe.

“There’s a measure that the European Union can take right away,” Mr. Leon told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera Saturday. “Come out in force to guard the seas off Libya. Italy can’t do it alone. It needs help.”

Meanwhile, back on Lampedusa, residents are bracing themselves for many more arrivals. Most analysts predict that continued instability in Libya, combined with warmer weather and calmer seas that come with springtime, will likely mean that the final numbers will show a near-tripling of the number of arrivals between 2013 and 2014 — 60,000 and 175,000, respectively — and that the flood of migrants will only grow larger this year.

“They say more and more migrants will arrive this year,” said 79-year-old Gino Maggiore, a retired fisherman. “Whatever they are doing about this problem, I hope they don’t forget the impact it is having on us here on Lampedusa.”

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