The leader of France’s extreme right-wing National Front party, Marine Le Pen, has said that North African migrants who have arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa to escape from unrest in Tunisia and Libya should be immediately turned back to their native countries.
Le Pen, who currently leads electoral polls in France, visited the immigration detention center on Lampedusa on Monday.
Almost 9,000 migrants have reached the tiny island by boat since mid-January when protests in Tunisia unleashed a revolution across the Arab world. (Many of these arrivals have relatives in France and seek to go there).
The subsequent “civil war” in Libya has led to hysterical fears in some European quarters of huge numbers of refugees seeking to enter European shores.
I want to draw Europe's attention to what is happening, Le Pen told Agence France Presse prior to her flight to Lampedusa. “European officials are averting their gaze and are trying to play down the risk of migration flows.”
Le Pen explained that her visit to Lampedusa was simply a fact-finding mission, but warned that Europe needs to get tougher in protecting her borders. She has called on naval forces to patrol as close as possible to the coasts from where the clandestine boats departed to send them back.
I also want to offer my support to the inhabitants of Lampedusa who have had the feeling of being completely abandoned, she said.
If I listened only to my heart, I would throw myself in the water to save them. But we would all drown because my boat is too fragile.”
However, she was jeered by protesters as she toured a housing center for illegal immigrants, according to the Associated Press.
Some held placards which read in French and Italian: Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood, even for those without documents, Lampedusa Is Not Racist! and Solidarity with the Asylum-Seekers!
Protesters who were organized by Askavusa, a local human rights group in Lampedusa, chanted Racists go away.”
Giacomo Sterlazzo, an Italian protester said Madame Le Pen is a xenophobe, racist and neo-fascist, and we don't want her here.
The mayor of Lampedusa, who has described the situation on the island as a crisis, defended Le Pen.
She is coming here to understand what is happening here,” said Bernardino De Rubeis. “As far as racial hatred is concerned, everyone has his own personal style. Her father has his. She has hers. I am not going to judge her as a racist.”
Local politicians from the opposition Democratic Party have condemned Le Pen’s visit.
Le Pen was accompanied by Mario Borghezio, a fellow MEP from Italy's anti-immigrant Northern League party, which forms part of the governing coalition.
The Italian government has asked other European governments for help in dealing with the expected wave of migrants from North Africa.
We believe there are about 1.5 million illegal immigrants in Libya, some estimate even 2.5 million, Roberto Maroni, the Italian interior ministry, said last week.