The natives of the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, off the coast of Africa, complained bitterly to the Italian government that their island was being inundated with refugees from Africa.
Some of these refugees were fleeing the turbulence in North Africa. A large number of them were economic migrants from sub-Saharan Africa who had no connection with the current turmoil, but viewed this as a propitious opportunity to smuggle themselves into Europe. Conditions are chaotic and catastrophic on the island where the refugees now outnumber the regular inhabitants, with more on the way.
"Everywhere you turn on the island you see migrants", claimed Sicily's regional president, Raffaele Lombardo. "Lampedusa looks more like a Tunisian island than Italian territory."
Despite his legal travails, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi made a whirlwind visit to the island to promise swift evacuation of the refugees and, in a more jocular vein, to nominate the island for the Nobel Peace Prize. Silvio Berlusconi also offered to buy up some of the refugee boats so that when he retires he can set up a fishing fleet
Rome did take 6000 of the refugees to Catania and Puglia on the Italian mainland. This merely shifted the problem to southern Italy and as a result, Italy's Deputy Interior Ministry Alfredo Mantovano from Silvio Berlusconi's own party, resigned in protest claiming that he had been misled about the ultimate number.
The issue would be troublesome in any European country, but it is particularly sensitive in Ital,y given the coalition's firm stand against illegal immigrants. Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroney of the Northern league, said his ministry would temporarily accommodate the migrants in thecountry but warned that they would only be allowed to stay for a limited time and if Tunisia did not voluntarily stem the flow of migrants the Interior Ministry would deport them back to North Africa.
The Italian government has complained that the European Union left Italy holding the bag and should assist Italy with repatriation. Italy is particularly incensed at France because many of the Tunisian migrants are seeking to get to France as they speak French and some of them have family members and friends there.
Instead, following the law in the European Union that refugees get sent back to the first country in the EU where they landed the French dump them back in Italy. Nicolas Sarkozy is on equally treacherous grounds when it comes to immigration, given the challenge he faces from the National Front.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini complained that "Europe is completely inert" and all states should share the burden of the refugee influx. The European commission replied that it could not force other European states to take in the refugees "the European commission can only encourage them." Given Europe's budgetary problems it had scant resources to assist in repatriation and these funds had to be distributed to all countries in the European Union.