I keep getting queries from people scared to come on holiday to Sicily, worried that the island is so packed with immigrants they’ll hardly be able to move. If immigration into Italy continues as the current rate of 1,000 immigrants per day (it’s actually been more than that for the last couple of weeks) then, by the end of 2015, Italy will have received around 360,000 people. That’s more than the entire population of Florence or Catania or Venice.
It’s clear no country can provide for that many new arrivals, who often have serious diseases, no education or job skills and a lot of whom are children sent off without their parents.
Why are they coming?
The majority are economic migrants. A minority of the people coming here are refugees fleeing danger.
Italy grants about one fifth of them refugee status. Right now the dangerous zones in Africa consist of Muslim-fundamentalist related civil violence in Ethiopia, Sudan and Nigeria but few of the immigrants come from these countries. The vast majority of them arrive from Libya telling stories of violence and civil breakdown there, yet they are not from Libya. They were not migrant workers in Libya. They only went through Libya on their way to Europe. There is a humanitarian crisis in Asia too, but the Bangladeshi immigrants in Sicily are not those who were affected by it.
This is big business. The people traffickers of North Africa, currently based mainly in Libya, are making a fortune sending people towards Lampedusa and Sicily and, since they are in a country with two rival governments which actually amount to anarchy, there is nobody to stop them.
Where are they going?
In reality, Sicily is not filling up with the thousand or so immigrants currently arriving each day. It is processing them and releasing them. There is more-or-less stable number as more arrive and the previous intake migrate northwards. If you come to Sicily, you may get asked for cash by a few Africans wanding about dressed scruffily, but you will see far more Africans in northern Italy.
Lombardy and the other northern provinces are filled with immigrants. So are Germany, Sweden and Britain, where the state gives them a house, generous unemployment benefit, free lessons in English and computer skills, and free medical care.
The main reason they leave Sicily is that it only takes a matter of days here to realise there are no jobs. More than 50% of young Sicilians cannot find work, so what hope is there for an illiterate foreigner who doesn’t speak Italian?
They also see immediately that many of the public facilities are far more dilapidated and under-funded than those they left behind. Some of them go on to find out that Sicilian hospitals have less basic medical equipment than the hospitals in Cairo, Tunis and Tripoli. (For example, in Palermo children’s hospital my son was offered a bare mattress in a corridor to sleep on, and the nurse hammered a nail into the wall with her shoe because they had no stand for his drip bag. I’ve seen Tripoli hospital on TV during the Libyan crisis and the facilities looked far more modern and fancy than any I have seen in Sicily.)
What is the nature of this crisis?
The immigrants to Italy want to escape economic, social and medical problems in their home countries, but they are actually bringing them to Italy instead.
The strains on European countries’ generous social security systems are obvious. Italy is slowly dismantling its welfare state in this time of economic depression – Italians have to pay cash on the spot in state hospitals for medical tests and treatments before receiving them – yet the country still has to provide free medical care for penniless immigrants. Few Italians qualify for unemployment benefits, instead having to depend on relatives.
Even the legal immigrants have great difficulty finding work. The EU finances voluntary repatriation for legal immigrants. Over the last 5 years more than three thousand legal immigrants in Italy have chosen to return to their country of origin using this programme because they could not find work in Italy. The majority of the migrants are refused refugee status but Italy lacks the resources for forced repatriation, so they just remain as illegal immigrants living mainly off religious charity.
Serious illnesses are spreading. Everyone is terrified of ebola without realising there are epidemics taking place already. Italy has Europe’s first cases of tuberculosis resistant to all known drugs, which originated from Africa. Over half of Italy’s cases of tuberculosis are among immigrants but infection rates are rising among the native population. Several hospitals, such as Maggiore Hospital in Modica, have issued emergency announcements – persistently ignored and denied by the government in Rome – saying they do not have facilities to cope with the number of tuberculosis patients they are receiving. The proportion of people living with HIV is almost four times higher among Italy’s illegal immigrant population than among the population as a whole but, more worryingly, is the fact that it is spreading among them ten times faster because of their sexual behaviour.
There are ever-increasing incidents of knife fights and other violence in and around the refugee centres, sometimes between immigrants from enemy tribes and rival politican factions but more often simply between young men for whom such violence is a way of life and considered normal.
Child sexual assault is rampant. A lot of these immigrants come from countries where girls are routinely circumcised by having their labia cut off and the raw tissue sewn together at the age of about seven. Having females with a genital tract reduced to a mass of non-elastic scar tissue is the reason that Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia have the world’s highest rate of deaths during childbirth and the world’s highest rate of infant still births. The immigrants do not leave their home countries to get away from this type of sexual assault and child abuse, they battle to continue it in Europe.
Women’s right have gone back about 150 years. Every time I go to Palermo I see immigrants from Bangladesh (NOT the ones from Africa I would like to emphasise) treating their women like pack animals, who struggle along three paces behind their empty-handed husbands when nine months pregnant and carrying a toddler and a bag of shopping. Maybe these people do not regard this as a social problem, but I am a European woman, and I do.
What is the solution?
The human traffickers who are managing this flood of emigration should be tracked down and arrested. Which one of the Libyan governments will do this? Obviously, neither. The EU needs to send in a mission – military if necessary – to hunt them down. When you are dealing with an anarchic country, this is the equivalent of legal extradition. They are knowingly and wilfully endangering human lives, and assisting illegal immigrants in entering Europe, all of which are crimes under European law, and crimes which they committed in European waters under European jurisdiction.
This then leaves the question of how to help those bona fide refugees who need and deserve European help. Most refugees, as opposed to economic migrants, do not want to start a new life in a place where the culture, religion and way of life is nothing like their own. It would be in our own interests and theirs too if the EU helped resolve the problems where they exist in Africa.
Let’s be clear about this, the problems are Islamic fundamentalists. The migrants to Europe who are vaild refugees are mainly Nigerians fleeing Boko Haram and Somalians fleeing Al Shabaab. Sending money to the national armies might help. Sending men to assist in military training might help more. Sending soldiers and weapons might help the most.
Sending ships to import a couple of thousand citizens from these areas into Europe each day is not a sustainable solution.