The aging turboprop filled with a squad of blue-clad Italian riot police banks over the Mediterranean and descends onto a tiny, wind-swept island that emerges like an apparition from the turquoise waters near Tunisia.
Lampedusa has been a base for fishing fleets, an exile for radicals and Mafiosi and a vacation spot in summer, when the population multiplies tenfold. Today, it is the border.Like the U.S.-Mexico line, this island -- an hour's flight south of Sicily -- has become a rampart between two worlds. Lampedusa, all 12 square miles of it, serves as a gateway to Europe for seagoing migrants who are smuggled, abused and exploited by criminals and, allegedly, officials in Libya, the main staging ground for the illicit journeys.
Last year, Italian security forces based here intercepted about 34,000 illegal immigrants on precarious vessels from Africa, double the number in the previous year. That human wave from the south has collided with a powerful countercurrent: a Europe-wide move to fortify borders that has been intensified by the global economic meltdown.
In recent weeks, Italy announced tough measures against seagoing migrants, who account for 15 percent to 20 percent of illegal entrants. In the past, immigrants knew they would be held on Lampedusa for only a few days, then be transferred to facilities on the Italian mainland. Often, authorities at overcrowded detention centers gave the prisoners deportation orders but released them, which provided them a shot at remaining in Europe.
Now, instead of being transported to the mainland, inmates who don't qualify as political refugees remain jailed here until they can be sent home. After the changes, the population at the island's detention center doubled, approaching 2,000. Tension spread. Tempers flared. On Feb. 18, more than 100 Tunisians set fires and brawled with riot police in the smoke and flames.
When the unrest was over, a cellblock had burned down and there were scores of injured, mostly police.
"I treated 72 police officers and 24 migrants," said Laura Rizzello, a Red Cross nurse who has spent three years on Lampedusa.
The rage has subsided for now. On a recent afternoon, inmates played soccer beneath barred windows festooned with colorful North African garments while firefighters and construction workers demolished the cellblock gutted by fire. A few miles away, dogs slept on a street populated chiefly by a small army involved in immigration enforcement: police, bureaucrats, and coast guard and navy personnel.
Demographics and prosperity have pushed Italy into a headlong transformation, from a country that generated immigration to one that has absorbed an estimated 4 million immigrants, a foreign population second only to Spain's.
The backlash results partly from the clout in the government of the Northern League, a formerly secessionist party with hard-line immigration policies. Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, a Northern League leader, has declared that the time has come to "get mean" with illegal immigrants. A rise in violent crime by immigrants and the repercussions of the economic crisis intensify the political heat.
"The government is concerned about immigration, but the country needs immigrants," said political scientist Franco Pavoncello, president of John Cabot University in Rome. "There are pressures of immigration on the government structures, a lot of tension."
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