Italy urges EU nations to take in more refugees

Italy urges EU nations to take in more refugees

The Italian prime minister has urged his EU allies to take in more refugees, saying the relentless arrival of tens of thousands of rescued people on Italian shores is putting his country under enormous strain.

Paolo Gentiloni spoke after 10,000 people were pulled to safety from the Mediterranean in the last few days alone.

With an election due in less than a year, political pressure is building on his centre-left government to push for relief from fellow EU nations.

Flanked by EU national leaders and EU officials at a news conference in Berlin, Mr Gentiloni said the growing number of arrivals "puts our welcome capability to a tough test".

Italy has already taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees in the last few years.

Some estimates say 220,000 people could land in Italy by the end of 2017.

"It's a country under pressure, and we ask the help of our European allies," Mr Gentiloni said, when asked about a reported new Italian strategy of blocking Italy's ports to non-Italian NGO ships that rescue people from distressed dinghies and other unseaworthy boats off the Libyan coast.

While acknowledging that European nations take part in patrols to deter smuggling in the central Mediterranean, Mr Gentiloni said the job of caring for the refugees "remains in one country only" - Italy.

In addition to those who arrive, over 2,000 migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year, according to the UN.

On Sunday, Italy's anti-migrant Northern League Party teamed up with the centre-right opposition forces led by former Premier Silvio Berlusconi and triumphed in several mayoral races.

The Democrats, Italy's main government party, took an embarrassing drubbing in the vote.

Many Italian towns say they just cannot handle hosting hundreds of refugees anymore.

Right-wing parties remind citizens that Italians themselves are suffering from high unemployment and a practically flat economy.

In one port in Reggio Calabria alone, 1,066 people disembarked from the Save the Children rescue ship Vos Hestia on Thursday.

Among them were 241 unaccompanied minors.

From 2015 to 2016, the number of unaccompanied minors doubled to more than 25,000, according to the Interior Ministry.

This ship's rescued refugees came from Eritrea, Bangladesh, Somalia and several sub-Saharan nations of Africa and included a four-day-old boy.

Six refugees had chicken pox and some 250 showed signs of scabies, so officials set up pressurised showers.

There's also concern that if Italy, a stalwart supporter of the EU, sours on Brussels because it feels abandoned on the issue, the EU's very survival itself could be compromised.

"Either the Union can shake itself up, or the fear is that it can collapse definitively," said Francesco Laforgia, a lawmaker in a leftist party that split recently from the Democrats.

The idea that Mr Gentiloni's government is mulling blocking Italy's ports to European NGO ships, which increasingly rescue refugees before EU Frontex military fleets or Italian coast guard vessels arrive, is a dramatic recognition that public patience is wearing thin.

"The situation is no longer sustainable," Nicola Latorre, head of the Senate's defence commission, told the Il Messaggero daily.

"Obviously saving human lives remains a priority. But it's unthinkable that Italy does it all by itself."

Earlier on Thursday, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini backed Italy's stance and insisted that other EU countries share the burden of caring for refugees.

However, previous plans hatched in Brussels to make other EU countries take in a fixed number of people from Italy and Greece have failed.

Several central and eastern European EU members - including large countries like Hungary and Poland - have flat out refused to take in a quota of the asylum-seekers.

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