ROME (Reuters) - The deaths of 73 African migrants who drifted for three weeks in the Mediterranean without rescue have heightened concern about Italy’s crackdown on immigration, opening cracks in its ruling coalition and a rift with Brussels.
Five survivors, picked up off the Italian island of Lampedusa, said their grey dinghy left Libya carrying 78 people. A day later, the motor died: two pregnant girls, raped by traffickers, were among the first to die of thirst and exposure.
Italy is the first landing-point in Europe for many migrants from Africa and tragedies in the Mediterranean have become a fixture of the migration season, but since Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi toughened its immigration laws, things have changed.
The migrants said a dozen fishing boats passed but only one answered their calls, throwing food but refusing to board.
“There used to be competition among fishermen to save lives, but...with Italy’s new law making immigration a crime, they’ve become too afraid,” said Laura Boldrini of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. “The Mediterranean has become a No Man’s Land.”
In Italy, the survivors were placed under guard. Unless they win asylum, they may face detention under legislation passed in July making it a felony to be an illegal immigrant or help one.
That followed a deal Italy struck with Libya in May enabling it to return migrants stopped in international waters to Libya: the UNHCR has said that arrangement, the fruit of Berlusconi’s closer ties with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, consigns hundreds of asylum-seekers to inhumane camps in North Africa.
Rome’s hard line has strained relations with the European Commission, which last month called for an investigation into the repatriations to Libya. Berlusconi threatened to block all EU business unless Commission spokespeople were silenced.
“We need more than words,” Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said last month, denying Italy was responsible for the tragedy. He said frontier states were being unfairly burdened by illegal migration to the 27-nation bloc: “This is a European problem.”
Current EU President Sweden has vowed to discuss migration at an October summit, but analysts say it could be hard to curb mounting racism in Italy as the global crisis ups unemployment.
Italy’s crackdown was promoted by the far-right Northern League, a lynchpin of Berlusconi’s coalition, following a 75 percent leap in migrants arriving by sea last year to 37,000.
The measures, which include legalizing citizens’ patrols to enforce law and order, cut the number of migrants landing in south Italy between May and August to less than a tenth of last summer’s 10,000 and struck a chord with many Italians, worried by mass immigration and rising crime.
One TV poll said 71 percent thought the five survivors of last month’s boat tragedy should be tried as illegal immigrants.
“There is no doubt that racism is becoming more visible... and it’s going to get worse: partly because of the economy,” said James Walston, professor of Italian politics at the American University in Rome. “It’s dangerous because the far right in most countries is marginal. Here it is not.”
But Italy’s influential Catholic Church has spoken out. Days after the boat tragedy, its newspaper Avvenire likened Italians’ indifference with those who ignored the Holocaust, sparking a war of words with the League and driving already tense relations with the government to a new low.
Even in Berlusconi’s party, parliament speaker Gianfranco Fini, its second most important figure, has voiced unease.
Fini has called on the government to sideline the League and offer immigrants the vote. “We need strong censure of any show of racism and xenophobia,” he said.
League leader Umberto Bossi, who brought down Berlusconi’s first government in 1994, branded Fini’s comments “suicide” and threatened to force elections unless the reforms remained.
Crime was the focus of a bitter election last year, with a campaign by Berlusconi-owned media whipping up public anger at crimes by Roma and eastern Europeans. EU statistics show a 17 percent rise in violent crime between 2004 and 2007 in Italy, outpacing a 3 percent rise for the European Union.
In the industrial north, the League’s powerbase and home to most of Italy’s 4 million immigrants, far-right groups with fascist-style salutes have been keen to take part in the citizens’ patrols.
The groups, some in storm-trooper uniforms, evoke memories of the Black Shirt thugs of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
“Italy is in chaos. It’s time to react,” said Gaetana Zaya, founder of the far right Italian National Guard. “Italians can’t go for a walk, women can’t go out without being attacked. Italians aren’t protected anymore, only immigrants are.”
Italy already has informal citizens’ patrols in several cities, but a rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric from fringe groups like Zaya’s has raised concern: Milan, Italy’s financial capital, suspended a 200,000 euro ($295,100) deal with the Blue Beret watch group after its founder was linked to Zaya.
Italy has one of Europe’s largest police forces — at 324,000 officers in 2006 it was roughly double Britain’s, which has a similar-sized population. That shows, some argue, Italy has no need to enlist amateurs and should concentrate on the real enemy: organized crime rings like Sicily’s Cosa Nostra.
“The state is outsourcing its security responsibilities. It’s a deeply alarming development that could encourage acts of hostility,” said James Goldston, head of the Open Society Justice Initiative. “Italy has a fundamental problem with human rights, perhaps more than any other nation in Western Europe.”
Ironically, economists say Italy’s fast-graying population means it may have need of immigrants.
A Bank of Italy report in August found that immigrants — comprising 1.8 million workers or 8 percent of the workforce — do not take jobs from locals, and even enabled Italian women to seek work, by freeing them from domestic chores.
Mass immigration, unheard of 20 years ago, is fast changing society. Last month an Italian team of children of migrants from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh won an under-15 European cricket title, making headlines and winning praise from politicians like Fini.
The team, some of whom face deportation unless they receive citizenship, dedicated the victory to Northern League leader Bossi.
“This is the first European title in the history of Italian cricket,” said Italian Cricket Federation President Simone Gambino. “It shows immigrants bring prestige to our country, not just problems.”
Editing by Sara Ledwith