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Would-be immigrants arrive in Lampedusa, an Italian island in the Mediterranean, in March. (ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images)
Would-be immigrants arrive in Lampedusa, an Italian island in the Mediterranean, in March. (ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images)

Italy bears brunt of EU's immigration crisis Add to ...

From the outside, the Mineo migrant camp looks like a tiny piece of paradise airdropped into the poor Sicilian countryside. The neat rows of pink and yellow houses are surrounded by lawns, gardens and palm trees. The 24-hectare complex has a community centre and a soccer pitch. Mount Etna, covered in snow on a warm April day, is visible in the distance.

Inside, it's a different story. Built by the U.S. military in the late 1990s to house soldiers' families, the camp is now ringed by a barbed-wire fence and is off limits to visitors except for the Italian Red Cross, police officers and government officials.

That's because Mineo has been pushed onto the front lines of Italy's - and Europe's - immigration crisis, one that has sent relations between France and Italy to a new low, created ugly new tensions between the Italian south and the anti-immigrant north and highlighted Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's dubious standing on the world political stage.

Mineo is packed with about 1,600 migrants - legal status yet to be determined - from North Africa, Ivory Coast, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries where life is dangerous because of wars and environmental disasters, or hopeless because of racism and lack of job opportunities. "They are asylum seekers," said Gabriella Salvioni, the Red Cross director at Mineo. "They will be given case-by-case interviews to determine their futures."

Mineo, with a capacity of 2,000, is getting more crowded by the day as the Italian government empties the tiny island of Lampedusa, located midway between Sicily and Tunisia, of migrants. In the past two months alone, about 23,000 Tunisians, most of them young men, have landed at Lampedusa in small, leaky boats, turning the island into an overcrowded sanitary risk and enraging the 5,000 Italians who live there.

In what could be one of the worst tragedies since the exodus began in January, a boat carrying as many as 300 migrants from Libya capsized early Wednesday in rough seas about 65 kilometres off Lampedusa. Rescuers picked up about 50 people; 250 more remained unaccounted for as night fell.

Under European law, the country in which the migrants arrive is responsible for determining their legal status. That means Italy has born the brunt of what Mr. Berlusconi has called a "human tsunami."

One member of the migrant wave was Rezene Kifle, a 30-year-old Eritrean with thick curly hair and a friendly manner who has spent much of his adult life looking for a new home. His first stop was Sudan. Then he crossed the Libyan border, only, he said, to be imprisoned for six months. A payment of $1,000 (U.S.) to the guards secured his freedom.

For three years, he did odd jobs in Libya and was miserable. "The Libyans, they don't like black people," he said. "They robbed you in your house at night. Sometimes we couldn't get food. Even bread was hard to get."

When the coalition air forces, including Canada's, began strikes against troops loyal to Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi last month, Mr. Kifle decided to flee, boarded a leaky boat with a couple of hundred other refugees and set sail for Lampedusa. Their engine conked out and they almost didn't make it. A week ago he was transferred to Mineo. Thousands of others were dispersed to camps and tent cities elsewhere in Italy.

Like most of the migrants at Mineo, Mr. Kifle's goal is to get to any country where he has a chance of employment; Britain, he said, is his first choice. But he doesn't know his legal status, has no idea whether he will be detained for six weeks or six months and, with no phone or Internet access, cannot even begin to make connections and find work.

However he is, in effect, free to go. The migrants can be given day passes and are free to walk the roads around Mineo. Hundreds do. A few flee and Italy never seems to try hard to stop them, apparently in the hope that they will leave the country. Most of the Tunisians, who speak French, want to go to France. Migrants staged a mass breakout at the Manduria camp in southern Italy on Friday.

The trouble is that the rest of Europe doesn't want them - France has turned back hundreds of migrants and Germany has said it will take none - creating a diplomatic battle that Mr. Berlusconi has been unable to win. The anti-immigrant Northern League, the coalition party in Mr. Berlusconi's centre-right government, and politicians of the far right are using the crisis to bash the French and stoke domestic fear of immigrants.

"I see that [French President Nicolas Sarkozy's wife]Carla Bruni has castles, so why doesn't she host the boat people in view of the fact they want to go to France," Alessandra Mussolini, Italian parliamentarian and granddaughter of Benito Mussolini, told the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica.

With Lampedusa filling up again, Italy could face a humanitarian nightmare. EU officials have predicted that as many as one million North Africans could leave their countries, most of whom would go to Italy, the closest European country.

Since neighbouring countries have "total refusal to co-operate," to use Interior Minister Roberto Maroni's words, Italy is using a form of blackmail to try to gain negotiating leverage. Some migrant camps are being built close to the borders in the north, making it easier for the occupants to leave Italy, while Mr. Berlusconi has threatened to give them some sort of legal status that would make it impossible for other European countries to send them back.

"Faced with the migrants' declared wish to go to other countries, we could grant temporary permits to stay that would allow them to circulate freely in Europe," Mr. Berlusconi said earlier this week, just before he went to Tunisia in an unsuccessful effort to negotiate a deal that would stop boatloads of North Africans reaching Italy.

James Walston, professor of international relations at the American University of Rome, said he has some sympathy for Italy's plight, because France and other EU countries are largely letting Italy fend for itself as the migrant crisis intensifies.

But he also said that Italy has taken a bad situation and made it worse. When the Arab uprisings started early this year, Italy, he said, knew that it faced a potential migrant onslaught from North Africa; Mr. Maroni had said as much. "Of course, Italy did nothing about it until it became an emergency," Prof. Walston said.

Once the Libyan civil war started, it was apparent to the entire EU that Italy might get swamped. Mr. Berlusconi and Colonel Gadhafi had signed a "friendship" agreement in 2008, one that obligated Libya to stop the constant outflow North African migrants from using Libya as a staging post for escape to Italy. The boat journeys from Libya virtually stopped.

The civil war and NATO air strikes, of course, have killed the Italian-Libyan agreement. Colonel Gadhafi has threatened to turn Europe "black" by unleashing waves of illegal immigrants unless his regime is allowed to stand.

Prof. Walston said Italy could have set up a proper screening centre in Lampedusa to deal with the North Africans on the spot. Most of the Tunisians would not have qualified as refugees - there is no war in Tunisia - and they could have been sent back. Others could have been invited to emigrate to Italy.

Mr. Berlusconi's failure to gain help from the EU to deal with the North African diaspora has come as no surprise to his many critics. "No one listens to Italy because Berlusconi is seen as a clown who is wrapped up in endless scandals, like prostitution scandals," Prof. Walston said.

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