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Italy plays role of Europe's immigration gatekeeper

Italy wants the rest of the Continent to stiffen border patrols and asylum guidelines.

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When a 9-year-old Somali girl named Asma arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa in a rickety boat full of illegal immigrants earlier this year, she was in shock. She and her parents had watched helplessly as three of her siblings died during the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean from Libya.

This summer, Italy has once again been horrified as boatloads of exhausted refugees limp into its ports, having set out, mostly from the coast of Libya in North Africa, hoping to sneak into Europe.

Italy, which struggles to patrol its 1,500 miles of porous coastline, is battling to dispel its image as an easy entry point onto the Continent. And it is calling on the European Union for help. After all, once immigrants penetrate Italy or Spain by sea from North Africa, the new arrivals are free to spread through 15 other European countries whose shared borders are open under the Schengen border agreement.

"Effectively the Italians and the Spanish are patrolling not just their own, but Europe's, borders. So the Italians say Europe should play a bigger part in solving the problem," says Sergio Romano, a political commentator and former Italian ambassador to Russia.

Italy wants Europe to draw up a common immigration policy, creating joint European border patrols, immigrant quotas, and strict asylum guidelines. But with immigration an increasingly politicized issue across Europe, individual countries are unlikely to reach rapid consensus.

Last month, Italy and Germany raised the idea of opening "reception centers" inside Libya to process asylum requests and fly failed asylum seekers back to their country of origin - other African and Middle Eastern nations. European lawmakers and human rights advocates have balked at the concept, warning that it would create "concentration camps" in the desert of North Africa.

Italian lawmaker Rocco Buttiglione, who will be in charge of EU policy on asylum and immigration once he is sworn in as justice commissioner next month, insists that the centers would help people find legal ways into Europe and avoid falling into the hands of criminals smuggling people.

EU figures estimate around 500,000 illegal immigrants arrive in Europe each year from all over the world. The Italian Interior Ministry estimates that immigration into Europe is worth more than $3 billion per year, the trip across the Mediterranean alone costing as much as 2,000 euros ($2,400) per person.

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