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Migrant Crisis Exposes Two Sides Of Berlusconi

Premier Silvio Berlusconi addresses the migrant crisis during a visit to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa on Wednesday.
Premier Silvio Berlusconi addresses the migrant crisis during a visit to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa on Wednesday.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been sharply criticized for his handling of a migrant wave on Lampedusa — an island in the Mediterranean Sea that is the southern most point of Italy, about 70 miles from Tunisia. Last week, Tunisians who had fled the unrest in North Africa outnumbered the 5,000 islanders.

Visiting the island, the prime minister made many promises, but he also alienated his European Union partners and earned the scorn of human rights groups.

Under the glare of TV cameras, the mayor spoke to islanders from City Hall. The island's mayor banned all negative posters from the event, and burly Berlusconi supporters made intimidating remarks to young protesters.

With the stage set, Berlusconi was in his element — his face covered in thick, pancake makeup, his hair a color and consistency that do not exist in nature.

He vowed to solve the two-month-old crisis, and said within 60 hours, all Tunisians would be evacuated. And, to compensate the island, he offered tax breaks, cheap boat fuel, urban renewal, a golf course, a gambling casino and, best of all, the island's nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.

A Different Picture

But later at a press conference, Berlusconi turned surly when asked why the crisis lasted so long.

"I pity you for having to look at that horrible face of yours in the mirror," he told one reporter.

He got even angrier at questions suggesting his visit was a diversionary tactic, while his legislators in Rome pushed through a law aimed at canceling his ongoing bribery trial.

Of all his statements, the one with the biggest impact was the claim that most of the migrants had escaped from Tunisian jails, though there's been virtually no crime on the island.

But the claim reinforced many regions' reluctance to shelter the migrants and triggered criticism from human rights groups.

Amnesty International said the crisis was avoidable and was created by the government. It blamed Italy for leaving migrants in appalling conditions, which it said were in violation of human rights legislation.

Some commentators suggest Berlusconi's right-wing government had a vested interest in letting the crisis escalate in view of upcoming local elections.

If he hoped to win support from European allies in dealing with a potential mass exodus from North Africa, he miscalculated: France — where most of the Tunisians hope to go — has re-imposed border controls and is pushing hundreds of migrants back to Italy.

The EU rejected Italy's request for a crisis summit and for more emergency funds. It also warned Rome that it cannot send migrants back to Tunisia without a bilateral agreement.

None of Rome's partners seem to share Berlusconi's bleak vision of this sunny Mediterranean island as Europe's new Checkpoint Charlie.

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