“Italians are resisting the huge influx of immigrants arriving on their shores, with some politicians calling on supporters to say “no, with every means, to every new arrival”
By Nick Squires, Rome
Italians are in growing revolt against the number of migrants arriving on their shores, with more than 10,000 people rescued from the Mediterranean in the past week alone.
The huge influx of asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa is putting an intolerable strain on a country that has been in recession for the past five years.
Conservative politicians called this week for boatloads of refugees to be sent back to Libya, while the system of migrant reception centres is on the verge of collapse.
The government in Rome has asked regional authorities to provide 6,500 new beds for migrants who are arriving on a daily basis in Sicily and the tiny island of Lampedusa.
But many regions responded grudgingly – some with downright hostility – saying they had no space to offer.
Val d’Aosta, a small, mountainous region on the French border, offered to take just one refugee.
There was also a frosty reception from the wealthy northern region of Lombardy.
“Here, as in Veneto (a neighbouring region that includes Venice) there is zero space,” said Roberto Maroni, the governor of Lombardy and a member of the staunchly anti-immigration Northern League. “We cannot be subjected to this invasion.”
“We are totally opposed to taking any more migrants,” said Luca Zaia, the governor of Veneto and also a member of the Northern League.
Conservative politicians say the policy of rescuing migrants at sea only encourages people trafficking by Libyan gangs.
Giorgia Meloni, the head of Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-Right Forza Italia party, said boats departing from Libya “should be stopped as they leave,” while boats with smugglers on board “should be sunk”.
Nearly 70,000 migrants and asylum seekers are currently being cared for by the Italian authorities and there have been warnings that as many as 500,000 refugees could try to cross to Italy this year.
While there is sympathy for the plight of people fleeing war, persecution and poverty, Italians say they cannot be expected to shoulder the burden without help from Europe.
“The system is close to collapse,” said Claudio Palomba, the prefect of Rimini, on the Adriatic coast, and the president of the national union of prefects. “We’re only in April and I don’t know if the system will be able to cope if the number of arrivals keeps up at this pace.”
Matteo Salvini, the head of the Northern League and a rising star of the Italian Right, has called on his supporters to block moves to accommodate any more migrants.
“I ask the League’s governors, mayors, assessors and councillors to say no, with every means, to every new arrival. The League is ready to occupy every hotel, hostel, school or barracks intended for the alleged refugees,” he wrote on his Facebook account this week.
As boatloads of refugees continue to make the dangerous crossing from Libya, merchant vessels in the Mediterranean complained that they were being called to help with rescues.
Italy terminated its search and rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, in October and it has been replaced by a much smaller operation run by Frontex, the EU’s border control agency, which has to rely on the assistance of merchant ships.
Last year, merchant ships rescued 44,000 migrants, out of total of 170,000 who reached Italy from North Africa.
One Italian tug boat, the Asso 21, which normally supplies oil rigs in the Mediterranean, claims to have assisted in 60 rescues last year and 22 so far this year.
“The situation is becoming unsustainable,” Mario Mattioli, the owner of the tug boat, told La Repubblica on Thursday. “Taking part in rescues is no longer unusual – it has become routine.
“Like other merchant ships we are being called on to help out on a daily basis, but our crews are not trained to deal with these operations. We can’t provide medical care or thermal blankets or emergency food.”
There are also security issues for the crews of merchant ships – this week traffickers fired shots into the air from Kalashnikovs in order to force an Italian vessel and an Icelandic coast guard ship to relinquish a wooden boat which had been used to transport migrants from the Libyan coast.