Italy prepares for dramatic rise in refugee landings
ROME - As the threat of US-led strikes on Syria looms large, Italy is preparing for the dramatic rise in refugee landings on its shores to increase even further.
Thousands of Syrians have arrived so far this year in a markedly different type of influx to landings seen since the start of the Arab Spring revolts in 2011.
Scores or even hundreds more arrive almost daily, in what officials say has created an "emergency" in Sicily.
They are usually better off and better connected than the thousands of Eritreans and Somalians who also come and their final destination is Sweden, not Italy.
"They have money and are well-dressed, carrying tablets," said Carla Trommino, a local lawyer in Syracuse in Sicily where most of the Syrians have arrived.
"They try to avoid identification by the authorities because they want to go to Sweden and not end up in the system of Italian refugee centres," she said.
Their Mediterranean journeys also begin in Egypt or Turkey, much farther afield than Libya or Tunisia where many recent asylum-seekers had started from.
"We often see relatives waiting with cars on the dock," said Trommino, who is also a local representative for the immigrant rights group ASGI.
"They stay one or two days and then escape," she added.
Sweden this month became the first European Union country to announce it will give asylum and permanent resident status to all Syrian refugees who apply.
Around 1,300 Syrians landed in Syracuse in August alone, compared to 646 landing in July, officials said.
"There has been a real intensification. We have had to call in reinforcements," Antonio Spampinato, the local border guard commander for Syracuse, said.
Entire families, unaccompanied children and pregnant women have been among those landing, fleeing the two-year civil war in hope of a better life in Europe.
"I do expect the Syrian crisis can lead to the worsening of the refugee problem," Italy's Prime Minister Enrico Letta said earlier this month.
Interior Minister Angelino Alfano last week visited Syracuse and declared the refugee influx had become an "emergency" in Sicily -- a part of Italy that has already been badly hit by a painful recession.
He said Italy was tripling bed spaces in refugee centres to 16,000 in expectation of more arrivals and would push for a change in European asylum rules to facilitate family reunions -- which would make it easier for Syrians to leave Italy for northern Europe.
"This region is unprepared. There aren't enough bed spaces and the refugee centres that are being used right now are informal ones," Trommino said.
There have often been emotional scenes in Syracuse in recent weeks, with relatives embracing in the port after receiving word ahead of time about the arrivals.
One Syrian woman gave birth during an eight-day voyage on a boat carrying 354 other refugees, while another died as she crossed with her husband and two children.
The woman was a nurse in Damascus and her husband gave his permission for the donor use of her liver and kidneys, which saved three Italian patients.
Several Syrians arriving have had to be hospitalised with dehydration in the hot summer sun, sometimes airlifted by helicopter directly from their boats.
There have also been tensions: for example, when two Syrian men were unjustly accused by others on the boat of being crew members just because they had tried to defend their children's water rations in the crossing.
Under Italian law, crew members are arrested and deported since aiding illegal immigration is a crime.
Syrians say they pay around $3,000-$4,000 (2,275-3,000 euros) for adults and $1,500 for children for the trip.
Spampinato said people smugglers had come up with a "lucrative" system to maximise their intake by taking large numbers of asylum-seekers across on "mother ships" -- large fishing boats or cargo vessels.
Before reaching Italian national waters, they are then transferred to smaller vessels to be taken to shore.
"We identify the mother ships but we cannot intervene because they are in international waters," he said.
Similar smuggler routes from the eastern Mediterranean are used for the import of far more sinister cargo.
On Friday, a police patrol off Sicily arrested nine Egyptian and Syrian crew members, plucking them from the sea after they set fire to their own ship, an 85-metre (279-foot) cargo vessel laden with drugs.