Europe's huddled masses

Gavin Hewitt | 11:40 UK time
16 February 2011

LAMPEDUSA, Italy: Lampedusa is a speck. A rocky outcrop with clumps of cacti. It is closer to Tunisia than Italy and its houses seem more North African than Italian.

For a long time migrants have spied it as an entrance point to Europe. A toe-hold on Lampedusa can be the start of a life in a Paris suburb.

But now, with revolt and upheaval shaking the Arab world, this island is seen as the gateway to Europe by thousands of young men.

In the past week more than 5,000 Tunisians have made it to Lampedusa. The population of the island is 6,000. I spoke to some of the new arrivals yesterday. They are clear why they have travelled. Work. They are economic migrants. They do not try and disguise it.

For some the trigger for their departure was the collapse in the tourist industry. They also saw opportunity. The police and the army, after the Tunisian revolution, tread uncertainly. So a few stole some fishing boats and word spread that the waters to Europe were open. Information travels at the speed of a text message. Many of these young men had been posting video of their journeys on their mobile phones.

I pointed out to them that Europe had shockingly high youth unemployment. They shrugged. They could not believe Europe was worse than North Africa. Another said that he had friends and relatives in Paris. They would find him jobs. That is, of course, the difference. The migrants see their future in the parallel and black economy.

On Lampedusa there are now scores of police and carabinieri. The men I spoke to were unfailingly polite. There is little tension.

So how will Italy and how will Europe respond? The Italian Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni, has warned of a "biblical exodus" leaving Tunisia. There are reports of tens of thousands waiting to leave. It is almost impossible to verify this. Others say that 60 migrants from Egypt have arrived in Sicily.

The Italians fear what may develop and are stressing it is a European problem - which clearly it is. Those I spoke to had their sights set on Brussels, Paris and Berlin.

Europe is struggling with high levels of unemployment. There are 24 million without work. In Spain 43% of those aged between 16 and 24 cannot find a job. In Italy the figure is close to 25%. Across Europe they are talking of a "lost generation", neither in work nor in education.

Those stats came to my mind in Lampedusa when I heard that some of the local fishermen had staged a small protest. "Help the fishermen," they had demanded. "Help us like you're helping the illegals."

So I suspect the question many are asking across Europe when they see the pictures from Lampedusa is this: "Will the new arrivals be allowed to stay or will they be sent home?"

It is, of course, the question that is rarely addressed, let alone answered.

Take Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar, of the Socialist and Democrats grouping in the European Parliament. He said: "European countries cannot be left alone to deal with immigration flows. Common shared solidarity and political will are key instruments for the EU's border management." That is almost certainly true but it does not address what many will be asking across the streets of Europe.

Sarah Ludford, a Liberal Democrat MEP, says "this is not an excuse for southern EU countries to duck their responsibilities". She has focused on the failing asylum system in Greece and fears, no doubt, a new chapter may open up in Italy. It is invaluable work, but it doesn't address the most basic question. If significant numbers in North Africa are on the move how will Europe respond?

In survey after survey ministers and officials are mistrusted on the subject of immigration. It is the area where an elite are seen to be out of step with the people.

It is, course, a subject that defies simplistic solutions. There will be talks between Italy and Tunisia. There may well be further investment in Tunisia, beyond what was offered the other day by EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton. More EU Frontex boats may patrol the waters, but the voters will, I suspect, like the fishermen in Lampedusa, have other questions they want answering by their politicians and by their officials.

In a few days the winds will moderate and the seas will calm. Then Europe will discover whether the movement of the 5,000 was an impulse, a moment in time, or whether they reflect a deeper change - asking of Europe's leaders difficult and searching questions. ... asses.html