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Italy Struggles With Illegal Immigration - 2003-06-21

About 100 North Africans landed Saturday on Italy's southern island of Lampedusa fueling a bitter dispute over illegal immigration within the country's ruling right-wing coalition. The surge in arrivals of illegal immigrants this week has highlighted that the problem is far from resolved.

The latest arrivals came from Turkey. Like all those who land on Lampedusa, they were taken to a detention camp, which has reached its bursting point. Tents have been erected to house the excess numbers. The center now holds three times its normal capacity.

The situation is so desperate that the Italian government this week issued a decree allowing its coast guards to turn back boats before they enter Italian waters if they are deemed seaworthy and if their passengers are not genuine asylum seekers.

More than 3,000 illegal immigrants have reached Italian waters in the past month. Most of the boats set out from countries in Northern Africa like Libya and Tunisia. Many capsize and fail to reach their destination.

Just two days ago a boat loaded with immigrants and headed for Italy sank off the Tunisian coast. Hundreds are feared to have drowned.

The unresolved problem of illegal immigration is causing tension in Italy's coalition government just as Italy prepares to take on the rotating EU presidency on July 1. Right-wing reforms minister Umberto Bossi has strongly urged Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to apply pressure on North African governments to stem the flow of immigrants.

Mr. Bossi has threatened to withdraw his support if the government does not take a harder line. A previous showdown with Mr. Bossi caused Mr. Berlusconi's first coalition government to collapse just seven months after gaining power in 1994.