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Refugee crisis poses challenge for cash-strapped Italian gov’t

Xinhua News Agency February 20, 2015 5:30pm

News Analysis: Refugee crisis poses challenge for cash-strapped Italian gov’t

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(GlobalPost/GlobalPost)

by Eric J. Lyman

ROME, Feb. 20 (Xinhua) — The rising influx of African refugees to Italy is drawing new attention to the old problem of sharing the burden within the European Union.

The number of economic and political refugees fleeing to Europe’s shores is rising dramatically, as conditions in Africa deteriorate.

SWELL IN NUMBERS

Around 60,000 arrived in 2013, a number that nearly tripled last year, when 175,000 arrived. So far, the number of arrivals this year is well ahead of the pace a year ago — sources report nearly 5,000 have tried to make the trip in the last week alone — despite an unusually harsh winter that make crossing the Mediterranean particularly treacherous.

Many of the migrants die in transit. Last week, at least 300 died after their small boats tipped over amid waves as high as 10 meters. Just a few days earlier, the Italian Coast Guard rescued 100 migrants who had fallen into rough seas, but 29 of them died from exhaustion and hypothermia before they could reach the shore.

Italy is the main entry for refugees, partly because of its proximity to Africa — the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, for example, is closer to the African coast than it is to Sicily — and partially because the long Italian coastline is difficult to patrol, especially with cutbacks in government funding for the Navy and Coast Guard.

The cash-strapped Italian government has been calling for help from the European Union (EU) to help defray some of the costs of monitoring the coastlines, launching rescue operations, and processing and feeding those who make it to shore.

NOT JUST AN ITALIAN PROBLEM?

The Italian argument is that it is a European problem, not an Italian problem given that many of the refugees who land in Italy soon set off for France, Germany, and Britain, where family members or friends who can help their transition may already be living.

On Thursday, Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU’s commissioner for migration and home affairs, said the EU would beef up its own efforts to patrol the European coastline and would send Rome a 14 million euros (around 16 million U.S. dollars) aid package.

But according to experts, problems for Italy may run deeper than a need for economic help.

Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but Stefano Allievi, a sociologist and migration expert with Rome’s La Sapienza University, says an increasing number of the migrants are staying in Italy. Allievi says the number may be approaching 50 percent of the total number of arrivals.

“A few hundred of these migrants settling in a big city like Rome, Naples, or Palermo is not a big problem,” he told Xinhua. “But if a hundred arrive in a medium-sized town, it will be too much for the local institutions to handle effectively.”

ANOTHER TASK FOR RENZI

It also adds another problem to a long list for Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

Renzi, the reform-minded head of government who took power a year ago, is already working hard on a series of political, electoral, and economic reforms he hopes will add stability to the country’s political system, reduce government spending and spark growth. Using scarce political capital on a problem like the refugee crisis is no doubt an unwelcome development.

“It’s a tragic situation that must be addressed,” Gian Carlo Blangiardo, a migration and integration expert at Bicocca University in Milan, said in an interview. “It’s another thing Renzi has to pay attention to, and everyone knows it’s not an easy problem to solve.”

Most importantly, Allievi and Blangiardo also said the problem could be reaching a tipping point for Italy: as more and more of the migrants stay in Italy, they form small communities around the country. As those communities become more established, they act as a magnet for future waves of refugees.

“That is part of the attraction to countries like France, Germany, and Britain,” Allievi said. “Soon it may become an issue for Italy as well.”

Copyright 2014 Xinhua News Agency.

Xinhua is China’s state-run news agency.

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