An issue to which we have paid scant attention is nevertheless emerging as a worrying humanitarian crisis, to which there is no obvious answer.
The Italian news agency ANSA reports that the country is being "besieged" by illegal immigrants, with 850 having landed on Italian islands or been rescued at sea in the last three days.
Lampedusa, Italy's southernmost island, has borne the brunt of the arrivals, although migrants have also been brought in off the Sicilian coastline near Siracusa and Palermo. Seventy migrants have already been airlifted back to Egypt, while a further 200 were deported yesterday, aboard two interior ministry aircraft. But the situation, on Lampedusa in particular, remains critical. There are currently some 400 migrants in the island's processing centre, which is equipped to handle just 190 individuals.
The Italian government is now urging the EU to help it cope, with interior minister Giuseppe Pisanu warning that the situation was "increasingly dangerous and out of control", adding that the Maltese authorities had also pulled eight corpses from the sea."
Says Pisanu, "The resources currently earmarked by Europe are to deal with illegal immigration are absolutely inadequate," while his foreign minister, Gianfranco Fini is complaining that immigration has become an "increasingly disturbing problem”. His view is that it requires ever-stronger co-operation within the entire EU."
Meanwhile, the leading Catholic charity Caritas has warned that "far more" than 500 foreigners had drowned at sea last year while trying to reach Italy. It also says that a total of 13,635 irregular migrants arrived in Italy by boat in 2004, although this accounted for only 10 percent of the total. Fifteen percent entered the country by land, while the remaining 75 percent were individuals who became "illegal" by staying on after their residency permits expired.
The charity further notes that immigration policies cost Italy €144 million last year, €29 million on foreigners legally living in the country and €115 million on fighting illegal immigration. Clearly, in view of Italy's yawning budget deficit, this is unsustainable.