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Tensions Rise in Italy over What to Do with Illegal Immigrants

As thousands of illegal immigrants, mostly from Africa, continue to arrive to Italian shores, tensions are mounting over what to do with them.

To take just one example, in the Sicilian coastal town of Porto Empedocle, 9,480 immigrants have already arrived since the first of the year, along with 31 corpses of those who died trying to make the crossing from North Africa.

At the core of the problem is a north-south divide, with the southern regions like Sicily, Puglia, and Campania forced to bear the brunt of the waves of asylum seekers and the north refusing to offer any substantive assistance.

Pending a June 15 EU Council meeting in Brussels to once again debate the role of the EU in a coordinated immigration strategy, Italy is left on its own to deal with a situation that is already stretching its capabilities.

At that meeting, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi plans to insist on the immediate implementation of the quota system, meaning that by year’s end, 24,000 refugees currently awaiting placement in Italy would be “relocated” to other European States. Until now, France, Spain, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and the Baltic states have vigorously opposed the quota system. After lackluster results for his Democratic Party (PD) at recent mid-term elections and gains by the anti-immigration Northern League, Renzi has promised Italians he will stand up to Angela Merkel and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

The Renzi government is also trying to bolster its image in other areas of internal security.

“To combat the perception of insecurity of the citizens,” said PD spokesman Emanuele Fiano Wednesday, “as early as this week, the government will enact a decree for the Jubilee year with the hiring of 1000 police officers, 1000 carabinieri, and five hundred members of the Guardia di Finanza.”

While Italy has been the hardest hit by the massive migratory shifts, they have not been alone. Greece, already suffering from a devastated economy, is also awash with illegal immigrants.

In the last week in Kos, one of the Greek Dodecanese islands, about 1,200 refugees arrived on boats and rafts, mostly fleeing civil war in Syria and the Afghan Taliban. The island is located only three miles from the Turkish coast of Bodrum and is one of the chief maritime access points to the European Union. Already this year, approximately 7,500 immigrants have arrived on the island, which has only 30 thousand inhabitants of its own. The refugees have taken up residence on the streets, under bridges, in abandoned hotels, and on the beach.

As immigrants arrive on the island, Greek police take their fingerprints, register them, and assign them temporary residence permits that allow them to remain legally in Greece for six months. Then immigrants can apply for asylum, but many prefer to move to other European countries or stay in Greece where they often work illegally.

The massive presence of immigrants has already begun to cause substantial damage to tourism, a major source of Kos’s revenue. According to Trivago, a popular website for hotel reservations, last week, booking requests for Kos fell by 52 percent compared to the week before, while in the neighboring islands of Kefalonia, Mykonos, and Crete, requests increased by 66%, 28% and 14%, respectively.

France, too, though the numbers are lower, has been facing its own immigration issues. Tuesday morning, French police dismantled a makeshift refugee camp at La Chapelle on the outskirts of Paris and announced the evacuation of two other migrant camps in Calais, the largest French port from which hundreds of refugees have been trying every day to reach England.

One of two camps to be evacuated by the police is in the so-called “Lampedusa of the north,” just a few steps from the entrance of the Channel Tunnel.

The La Chapelle evacuation involved loading 350 migrants, who have been living for weeks in tents, onto several police buses and moving them to a variety of destinations in the local region. They will be relocated in specific housing, according to police reports.

Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.

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