The south coast of LampedusaSouth Coast of LampedusaImage via Wikipedia
Italy is at the forefront of the Tsunami of illegal immigrants invading Europe as a result of the "Arab Spring". That was the immediate unwanted effect of the upheavals in the Middle East (from Europe's point of view).

The small Italian island of Lampedusa - the nearest to North Africa, off the coast of Sicily - is particularly hit by this new wave of immigrants: as I write, the island's native population - some 5,000 people - are up in arms blocking the port where immigrants are landing. Since the start of the year, some 20,000 immigrants have arrived and there are more immigrants milling about on this rocky island than there are residents. Just last night 1,973 new immigrants landed! No wonder they are fed up! The local people are panicked: their touristic season about to begin with the warm season - the main source of income besides fishing - is clearly at risk.

Since about two days, the Rome government has made a small move to help (very small): it is now sending a ship everyday, capable of transporting up to 800 immigrants on each trip to the mainland. Clearly not enough. Tomorrow the government will have a "council of ministers" (read a meeting with Berlusconi, at which the President of the Sicilian Region is expected to attend) that will decide on measures to take. Not a minute too soon! In principle, it is expected that more ships will be used for transporting the immigrants to more refugee camps strewn about Italy, including near Pisa and possibly some other place up North. But most of them are still in Sicily and the South that is left essentially alone to bear the brunt of the new arrivals. And southern Italians aren't too happy about this. Speak of Italian Unity after the recent 150 years celebration! Berlusconi, who is a northerner, has been remarkably slow to move and help the southerners' plight. For those of you who speak Italian, check this blog: it will give you the flavor of the bad mood that is gripping the South...

And it is a perfect reflection of the bad mood that is gripping Italians when they consider how indifferent the rest of Europe is to their plight. Since the start of the "Arab Spring", Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini has warned of a coming "exodus of biblical proportions". The United Nations refugee agency added its own grain of salt, predicting a wave of 350,000 immigrants about to flood Europe. Others in the media even spoke of ONE MILLION refugees!

Big numbers, supported by the notion that since Italy and Libya had signed an agreement in 2009, Qaddafi effectively policed the Mediterranean and prevented immigrants from fleeing. With the battle for Libya this would stop and open the gates to flows of immigrants - and that was something Qaddafi repeatedly threatened would happen.

Did it happen? Not quite. Of course an immigrant wave did hit Italy and also Malta and Greece - while the rest of Europe looked on, or rather keeps looking away, busy with its own local elections. With both Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel's parties losing ground, much to the delight of the left (socialists and Greens), northern Europeans are much more interested in their own little problems than in waves of illegal immigrants descending on Europe.

Yet they're wrong. The French are particularly wrong: most of these immigrants are Tunisians who (being French-speaking) have but one goal, reach France and work there.

Because that's the BIG surprise: in spite of what Qaddafi said, most immigrants are NOT Libyans. So far, there has been an "exodus", not doubt about it, but the "biblical proportion" applies to Tunisians: they started arriving en masse about a month ago. Up to now (but of course that may not last), only some 500 Libyans have arrived - perhaps less ( of course, it's always hard to figure out who's who since they land without passport). Most of those coming from Libya in fact are not Libyans at all. For the most part they are complete foreigners to the region (mostly black Africans) who held menial jobs in Libya and are now escaping (after their Libyan bosses threw them out - most of these poor souls have lost all their savings while waiting for a boat to sail out, and none of those arriving in Lampedusa had any intention of seeking work in Europe). One may assume that Libyans are presently busy liberating their country from Qaddafi, taking advantage of the no-fly zone and related bombings from NATO/coalition forces - I've added "coalition" here since it has support from some Arab League members - including Qatar that notably joined France in recognizing the CNT, the new government of the Libyan rebellion.

So what happened? Why so many Tunisians? You would think that fewer would try to escape Tunisia since they kicked out Ben Ali, the hated tyrant, and succeeded in establishing a more open regime that should eventually lead, on hopes, to a working democracy with freedom for everyone. Right? Wrong. What happened of course is that the border controls put in place by Tunisian authorities under Ben Ali's rule collapsed. Desperate young men in search of a job jumped aboard ships, paying anywhere between $2,000 to $5,000 to try and land in Europe. Yes, because the Arab Spring has a lot to do with the Big Recession and the huge level of unemployment in the Middle East - and may have more to do with that than all this wonderful talk about democracy.

Have you ever wondered how come the young in all those countries - Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrein, Jordan, Syria etc - had so much time on their hands to go out and protest in the streets, day after day for a whole month or more? It's because they're unemployed, that's why! And of course, understandably angry at the lack of future for them when they see their governing elite basking in luxury and privileges...

A couple of days ago, the Italian Foreign Minister Frattini, accompanied by Interior Minister Roberto Maroni offered help to the Tunisian government in return for the re-establishment of border controls. He was fairly generous, offering to help the Tunisian government fight illegal migration with aid of nearly 80 million euros ($113.3 million) and setting up Tunisian border guards. In addition, credit lines of 150 million euros would be extended to help revive the Tunisian economy. And finally, Frattini aired the idea of giving immigrants who had landed in Italy a bonus in cash - up to €1,700 - to agree to return home . That was something you will recall that had been done with the Roms who left France last year. In fact, as Frattini pointed out, it is a European policy even though Bossi, the head of the Lega Nord, immediately cried foul, and demanded immigrants be kicked back home without a cent. He and others on the right clamored that if we gave in to this kind of policy, we'd soon be faced with a tourism of premium-seekers, going back and forth across the Mediterranean.

Quite frankly, I don't think that will happen. Premium seekers? Only a tiny minority, if at all. Overall, I think it's a pretty neat idea.

But it's only half of an idea. Much more ought to be done to try and genuinely kick-start those North-African economies. Italy's proposal to extend a credit line to Tunisia is a good idea, provided one has a clear idea of what the credit is for. Lady Ashton's proposal to support the Egyptian move to democracy with money - a sort of mini Marshall Plan to create jobs in Egypt - is probably also a very good idea.

But - and it's a big but!- we're facing there, in the Middle East, the same problem we have here at home with our own youth: an unbelievably high level of unemployment. Have you noticed? On average the young are twice as likely to be unemployed as the rest of the working population in any given country.

Why is that? All sorts of reasons, not least of them an education system that's too academic and doesn't correctly prepare one for working in the real world. And an economic system that does not favor innovation and start-ups. Politicians talk a lot about giving support to medium and small-size enterprises but actually do very little that is actually effective and likely to be a game changer. For example, a tax holiday would be a great game-changer for a start-up but what is our political class doing about it? Talking about curbing budget deficits, that's what! The idea that government should help young entrepreneurs is anathema to them. Just listen to Cameron and Osborne: these guys are convinced that if they cut back on government, the private sector will take over and solve everything. For the moment, all we see is a UK economy in free fall...

Let's face it, we don't have the answers to solve their economic problems since we're not even able to solve our own. We don't have job openings for 350,000 immigrants, it's as simple as that. Europe is still in recession for Goodness' sake, and Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain (not to mention Italy and the UK that are a little better but not much) are struggling!

What should we do? Well, it's a little late in the day, isn't it? The amazing thing is that anyone could see this immigrant tsunami coming - actually it's been coming on and off, big waves followed by smaller waves, over the past twenty years or more. How come no one has come up with a solution? Well, no use crying over spilled milk, no one has - that's how imaginative and provident our political class really is. Awful. And giving illegal immigrants a bonus for returning home is only an emergency solution.

Long-term, we ought to do something more and better. Like:
(1) invest over there to help them develop their economy and create jobs for their own citizens (everybody agrees on that one, though little is actually done and what is done rarely give the expected results...);

(2) check out what jobs are available in Europe that no European wants (nobody discusses this nor does it, yet it would be of immediate effect). Indeed, it would be both helpful and relatively easy to do: check out the immigrants' education and skill levels and match them with available job opportunities. For example, nursing of the aged: that's an area where there's rising demand in a fast-aging society such as ours, yet available nurses are scarce and perhaps some of the immigrants may have medical or nurse training. There are probably other areas. I remember here in Rome a baker who was lamenting to me the fact that he couldn't find a young man willing to get up in the middle of the night to work on the dough - yet that's the only way to bake good bread (other bakers have solved the problem using industrial frozen dough - very much the case in France where bread has become as a result very, very mediocre, believe me). Related to this, one could envisage providing complementary training whenever necessary to bring their skill level up to (European) par. And I don't mean big training: just short stuff, like recycling and refresher courses.

(3) Make job information widely available to the public so that everyone becomes aware of job opportunities - not only Europeans but also people abroad who think they can come to Europe and find a job.

Illegal immigrants are desperate people who live by myths, and one of their undying myths is that economic well-being is to be found in Europe for anyone willing to take the risk to cross the water. That myth needs to be re-dimensioned. Indeed, it should be killed with a serious information campaign across all of Africa (and other places in the developing world). It's a myth that misleads people, causes them to squander their savings and take unwonted risks with their lives. So many have died in the pursuit of that myth! It's just not fair and we should invest all our energies in spreading around credible, trustworthy information about the real job situation in Europe. And stop that myth of an Europa felix once and for all.

What do you think? What should we do in your opinion?

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