Storm chasers brave danger and debris as they try to capture photos of tornadoes' destructive power. Slideshow
"Luxury" migrant camp sparks row on Italian island
LAMPEDUSA, Italy - The barbed wire has gone and the dormitories look basic but reasonably clean. Welcome to the new-look camp for immigrants on the island of Lampedusa.
Two years ago the island, a major transit point for thousands of boat people seeking a better life in Europe, drew scathing criticism for the squalor and abuse of its overcrowded camp.
That has now been revamped and will soon be replaced by a more spacious, air-conditioned site as Italy pledges a more humane approach in its fight against illegal immigration.
But the plan has not gone down well with Lampedusa's residents, who echo complaints heard elsewhere in Europe that their political leaders are doing more for illegal immigrants than for their own citizens.
This month they sent a clear message to Romano Prodi's center-left government by voting en masse for a right-wing coalition -- including the Northern League party that long dismissed Italy's impoverished south as beyond hope -- to run the island.
"Lampedusa doesn't have a proper hospital, and its schools are literally falling to pieces. And now they want to open a luxury hotel for immigrants? No way," said Angela Maraventano, the new deputy mayor and the only member of the populist, anti-immigrant League to have won office south of Tuscany.
Lampedusa -- Italy's southernmost point just 113 km (70 miles) off Africa's coast -- is emblematic of the dilemmas faced by European governments wrestling with illegal immigration.
Tougher laws under Italy's previous center-right administration earned it international condemnation and did not stop 74,000 immigrants reaching the island in the past five years -- more than 12 times the population of around 6,000.
The softer stance taken by Prodi, which includes a proposal to give "clandestini" money to return to their homeland, is in turn triggering a popular backlash in a country where 43 percent see immigrants as a threat to public security, according to a recent poll.
NOT AN HOTEL
Lampedusa's old camp, which opened in 1998, became a byword for misery after an undercover reporter exposed appalling living conditions, chronic overcrowding and serious abuses by police.
The United Nations' refugee agency UNHCR denounced it as squalid, pressuring authorities to give humanitarian workers a permanent presence at the site, where the fate of immigrants -- asylum or expulsion -- is decreed.
That was granted last year and aid workers say conditions have since improved.
"We are being treated well, people are correct with us," Moussa Abderrazak, who washed ashore with seven others after crossing over from Tunisia on a four-meter rubber dinghy, told Reuters as journalists were allowed for the first time to visit.
Housing each immigrant there costs the Italian government 50 ($67) euros a day, but the center is no five-star hotel.
Nor will be the new camp, due to open next month.
Its bare buildings made of iron sheets will host up to 700 people -- up from 194 in the old center -- in row after row of bunk beds. It will have a canteen, a medical unit, an area for worship and police offices.
Windows in dormitories may only be opened by the center's staff and the immigrants will not be able to leave the premises.
Besides security, that is meant to keep them as separate as possible from the rest of the island and its inhabitants. The locals say images of rickety boats crammed with desperate people landing on their shores have hurt the tourist industry.
Gifted with a turquoise sea and stunning coves, as well as a famed beach where sea turtles lay their eggs, the rocky island could be a holidaymakers' paradise.
But like most of Italy's south, the Mezzogiorno, it has suffered from decades of neglect and mismanagement.
Pockmarked with concrete eyesores and illegal buildings, the island lacks its own drinking water, has a malfunctioning desalinization plant, poor transport links with the mainland and only basic medical facilities.
Building on the resentment fuelled by the new immigrants' center, the newly elected local authorities appear in no mood for compromise.
"If they don't give us a new school, I'll bring all the kids into the immigrants' camp and teach them there," said Maraventano, sporting the League's trademark green scarf with the logo of "Padania" -- the name the party gave to northern regions it once wanted to turn into an independent republic.
Maraventano, whose slogan is "Masters in our own Land", decided to enter politics seven years ago when a 60-year old friend died of a heart attack the local health service could not deal with.
She says she wrote to political parties in protest, and only got a reply from the Northern League -- which did not miss the opportunity of gaining a foothold in the south that not long ago it wanted to cut off from the rest of Italy.
"We found that we cared for the same things," Maraventano says of her first meeting with Northern League leader Umberto Bossi, who once said immigrants' boats should be shot at.
"Immigration is a timebomb waiting to explode".
- Tweet this
- Share this
- Digg this