Italy seeks EU support after Lampedusa refugee tragedy

Reuters

By Gabriele Pileri and Steve Scherer

LAMPEDUSA, Italy (Reuters) - Italy is asking for more European Union support and an overhaul of the bloc's immigration rules after last week's shipwreck off Sicily that killed hundreds of African migrants who risked a dangerous sea crossing in search of a better life.

Divers again descended to the wreck submerged at a depth of more than 40 metres (132 feet) to recover bodies. After 43 more corpses were recovered on Tuesday, the confirmed death total rose to 274, the Coast Guard said.

More than 300, mostly Eritreans, may have perished in the seas off the small island of Lampedusa, according to the 155 survivors, making it the one of the worst tragedies in the history of the EU's long immigration crisis.

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso will visit Lampedusa together on Wednesday. Barroso said he will seek to provide more help to Italy, without giving details.

Italian officials want it to be made easier for asylum seekers granted refugee status after arriving in Italy to be settled elsewhere in Europe.

"It is just not possible that the EU continues to accept that these people enter Europe in this horrendous fashion," Giusi Nicolini, Lampedusa's mayor, told Reuters on Tuesday. "And so we will ask him for new policies on asylum."

The latest incident has come in the middle of a bitter debate about immigration. Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge, Italy's first black minister, has faced a stream of insults from politicians from the anti-immigation Northern League.

With Lampedusa just over 110 km (70 miles) from Tunisia, Italy has borne the brunt of migration from North Africa for more than a decade, but reception centres remain inadequate.

More than 900 migrants, most of them likely eligible for asylum, continue to be packed inside a gated immigration centre on Lampedusa built to house 250. Hundreds are sleeping outside and have been drenched by torrential rains in recent days.

ASYLUM

Unlike in previous years, almost all the seaborne migrants could qualify for refugee status, in part as a result of the Arab Spring uprisings that led to political instability across the southern fringes of the Mediterranean, United Nations refugee agency spokeswoman Barbara Molinario told Reuters.

As of a week ago, about 30,100 migrants had reached Italy by sea this year, she said. Of those, 7,500 fled the Syrian civil war, 7,500 political oppression in Eritrea and 3,000 violence in Somalia, she said.

EU refugee rules, known as the Dublin regulations, were drafted a decade ago, and they establish strict limitations as to which country each migrant can apply for refugee status.

In most cases, asylum must be sought in the country where a person enters the EU, putting the burden on border countries like Italy and Greece.

Italian EU Affairs Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi called on Tuesday for work to begin on wide-ranging changes to EU asylum and immigration directives.

"Evaluating and possibly revising the Dublin rules must not be taboo," Moavero Milanesi told Avvenire newspaper, which is published by the Catholic bishops association. The minister's spokesman confirmed the comments.

He said the EU had to adapt common rules for every aspect of the immigration crisis, as it did when it drew up strict budget rules to tackle the euro zone debt crisis.

The badly overcrowded Lampedusa immigration centre showcases many of the problems Italy and the EU face.

Each migrant has a dramatic story to tell. Bashar, a 41-year-old Syrian, reached the island two weeks ago by boat from Libya, he told Reuters in an interview.

He is seeking asylum, but wants to go to Northern Europe, which will be difficult under current rules because he has no family already living in other parts of the EU.

A civil engineer by training, he said he paid $1,000 for a 24-hour boat passage because he could no longer secure a visa to legally enter Italy, Malta, or any other EU country. In 2007, he came to Italy with a tourist visa for his honeymoon.

In Syria, he said, "it's war. There's no working, no home. It's very, very, very dangerous. I didn't want to escape. I thought it would pass, but it didn't. Now people in Syria think there's absolutely no hope."

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