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Italian Towns Push Back on Growing Burden of Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The Italian government is locked in a battle with local towns and regions that are resisting—and even ignoring—demands from Rome to resettle the surging number of migrants in their areas.

This month, at least 20 mayors threatened to resign or occupied buildings together with residents to block the arrival of migrants sent by the government. Local associations have organized street protests.

“We should all be doing our part to deal with [finding accommodation for] migrants,” said Mario Morcone, head of migration for Italy’s Interior Ministry. “But this is not happening. It’s really frustrating.”

In the past couple of weeks alone, about 15,000 migrants have arrived by boat in Italy. Mr. Morcone expects 2015 to see as many as 200,000 boat people, surpassing the 170,000 who came last year. Since Friday, Italian authorities have rescued nearly 600 migrants, including many from one vessel that was close to sinking. Those migrants will add to those the Interior Ministry is already struggling to provide shelter and care.

The phenomenon is under particular scrutiny since the deaths of more than 800 migrants last weekend, when their Italy-bound boat capsized near the coast of Libya. On Friday, the captain of the boat made his first appearance in a Sicilian courtroom; prosecutors have placed him under investigation for suspicion of murder and other crimes.

EU leaders agreed last week on a more robust response to the migration problem, including tripling the budget for EU patrols of Italy’s border. While Rome has cheered the extra cash, political leaders in Italy have expressed disappointment over the EU’s plans to combat people smuggling and the modest help from other countries to cope with the migrants once they arrive on Italian soil.

Meanwhile, the company that manages the King Jacob—the Portuguese mercantile vessel that came to the aid of the boat that capsized last weekend—released further details of the incident. It said that when the Italian Coast Guard requested it to aid the migrants’ vessel, the ship’s 18-strong Filipino crew sighted the smaller boat when it was just 100 meters away. According to the captain, the migrants’ boat suddenly accelerated and collided with the side of the 480-foot-long cargo vessel, causing it to capsize immediately. The crew of the King Jacob pulled 22 people from the water.

The surge of arrivals brought on, in part, by the warmer weather coincides this year with regional elections in Italy on May 31. Anti-immigration sentiment has been a major electoral theme. Meanwhile, reception centers already shelter 70,000 migrants, up from 17,000 at the start of 2014, and the interior ministry is scrambling to find more places for the new arrivals.

Tensions are coming to a head as the Interior Ministry attempts to rebalance the lopsided allocation of migrants within Italy. The wealthy north has resisted taking many, while the deep south has taken the bulk.

Sicily, where most migrants are first taken after being rescued, has absorbed 21% of the total, while the Veneto, the region that is home to Venice, has taken in just 4%. Lombardy, the home to Milan and Italy’s largest and richest region, hosts 9%, and its governor, Roberto Maroni, has repeatedly said he won’t accept more people. Indeed, Europe’s biggest migrant center—a teeming place with as many as 4,000 boat people—sits in Mineo, Sicily.

“There’s no doubt that the southern regions are the ones with an excessive burden,”[of hosting the migrants] Interior Minister Angelino Alfano told Parliament this month.

Anti-immigrant parties such as the Northern League, which is particularly strong in the north, have seized on the growing wave of migrants to criticize the government of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. However, the resistance comes from across the political spectrum.

“Politicians are playing the anti-immigration card for the local elections,” said Berardino Guarino, director of programs at migrant aid group Centro Astalli. “What is absurd is that regions that are opposing new migrants are those that are better off economically.”

Town fathers in the north argue they have already become home in the past decade to large communities of foreigners, who are lured by lower unemployment there. For instance, foreigners now make up about 11% of the residents of the Veneto, said the regional governor, Luca Zaia. For Italy as a whole, foreigners represent 8.1%, triple the percentage in 2003.

Political leaders fear the arrival of migrants will raise resentment among residents who are already feeling economic pain from Italy’s protracted downturn. This month, Massimo Momolo, mayor of Battaglia Terme, a northern town close to Padua, protested a plan to turn a local spa hotel into a migrant reception center to host 100 people. Mr. Momolo argued that the town, with just 4,000 inhabitants, already took in 60 migrants. Meanwhile, with rising unemployment in the town due to a deep crisis in the construction sector, he said residents have complained about public funds being used for migrants.

“We protested in order to stave off an unbearable invasion of migrants,” he said. “We need to save our tourism industry.” The government is nonetheless moving ahead with the plan.

Francesco Vezzaro, the mayor of Vigodarzere, a small town in the Veneto, threatened to resign when he discovered Rome’s plans to use an abandoned army barrack in his town to host migrants. He objects to what he sees as arbitrary decisions by Rome on where to settle the migrants.

“There’s no plan, no involvement whatsoever of local authorities,” said Mr. Vezzaro, who retreated from his threat to resign after Rome rescinded its plan.

Italy’s Interior Ministry said it had no choice to move quickly in finding shelter and support, given the rapid arrival of the migrants. It has the power to impose the migrants on local towns, but it has been reluctant to use it.

To tamp down the resistance, the government met this week with local authorities and cooperatives involved in resettling the migrants to try to come to an agreement on an equitable distribution of the waves of migrants expected this spring. But no final decision emerged.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

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