Summer in the Mediterranean Waves of Would-Be Immigrants Target EU Shores

As the weather warms up and the waves calm down, thousands of would-be immigrants are setting sail for Europe from African shores. Many get picked up by EU authorities -- or die before they get that far.


Even as the European Union tightened rules for dealing with illegal immigrants last week, a new wave of those trying desperately to get from Africa to Europe has been making its way across the Mediterranean in recent weeks. Calm seas and warm weather have been easing the journey.

Over the past two days alone, over 800 illegal immigrants have landed on the shores of southern Italy, with most of them heading for the island of Lampedusa, lying just 113 kilometers (70 miles) off the Tunisia coast just south of Sicily. On Sunday, police took over 400 people into custody who were found in seven boats off the island. One day later, another 326 people were intercepted in another seven boats near the island, according to the Italian news agency ANSA.

"If a solution isn't found soon, the island's center is going to explode," the island's deputy mayor Angela Maraventano told ANSA Monday.

Not far away, off Malta, 54 migrants were rescued last Monday by the Maltese navy, and the bodies of six drowned Somalis were found.

The situation is hardly a new one. For the past several years, the numbers of those willing to risk the dangerous crossing from northern Africa rises right along with the temperature. The Italian Interior Ministry estimates that 16,500 illegal immigrants tried to reach Italian shores from Libya in 2007. The immigrants arrive in Libya from central Africa and from there are ferried to European shores, often by organized crime groups, in rickety, overcrowded boats. Most are trying to escape dire poverty at home. Many give up everything for the journey in the hopes that, once they arrive in Europe, they will be able to support their families from afar.

Already this month, Italy and Malta have fished dozens out of the Mediterranean. On June 6, Sicilian fishermen saved 27 refugees after their boat flipped. Ten others drowned. Just a day later, another ship heading north from the African coast capsized, reportedly killing 150. Last Friday, Italian boaters found 26 Africans hanging on to tuna cages in the Mediterranean after their boat sank.

"Whenever it is windy, you find corpses on the beach," Paul Pace, head of a Jesuit aid organization on Malta, told Süddeutsche Zeitung this week. "And it is often very windy. The small boats used by the refugees simply don't hold up in storms."

Over on Africa's west coasts, things aren't much better. So far in June, 569 people have been detained while trying to illegally reach the Canary Islands, located just off the Moroccan coast, a Spanish Interior Ministry official told the AP last week. In 2006, the total for the year was over 30,000, though the number declined in 2007. On Saturday night, dozens of would be refugees stormed the Spanish enclave of Melilla, located on the African mainland, and 100 were arrested.

In total, some 53,000 immigrants tried to enter Europe by sea via Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain in 2007, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The Amsterdam-based NGO United Against Racism estimates that, since 1993, over 9,000 would-be immigrants have perished while trying to reach Europe.

Last Wednesday, the European Parliament approved new measures aimed at unifying the handling and deportation of illegal immigrants across the EU. Measures include allowing immigrants to be detained for up to 18 months, imposing optional five-year bans on expelled immigrants, and the creation of special detention centers to prevent immigrants from being held among convicted criminals.

While many are welcoming the rule changes as a needed response to the waves of immigration, other have condemned the changes are "draconian" and "shameful."

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