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Libyan Refugee Gives Birth at Sea

As tens of thousands of people pour onto Italian shores from Tunisia, Libya, and other war-torn nations, Italian officials are asking when the rest of Europe will open its doors.

03.29.11 10:36 PM ET

When Asfaw Belay left Tripoli last weekend, he was dreaming of a perfect life in Europe. “We just want to live in peace,” he said on Italian state television. “A house, steady work, that’s all I want.” The 27-year-old Ethiopian man paid $1,200 to a clandestine boat-runner for one-way passage for him and his 26-year-old wife Feketre Alemu, who was nearing the eighth month of her pregnancy. Their plan was to join family in France by way of Italy.

Along with nearly 300 other would-be refugees, the young couple, who had been married just a year, crammed into a rickety boat and set sail for Lampedusa, the first chunk of dry land between North Africa and Europe. After more than 24 hours at sea, the boat ran into trouble. And so did Feketre. “I was hoping that we’d arrive on land before Feketre delivered, but when she started having contractions, I prepared myself to help bring our baby into the world,” he said.

As Feketre reached the final throes of labor, the boat was taking on more and more water. They were in contact with an Ethiopian priest on Lampedusa who alerted a nearby Canadian warship which offered pumping equipment to the listing vessel. They finally made it to the adjacent island of Linosa almost 72 hours after leaving Tripoli. Medics were waiting for the young family, who were airlifted to Palermo, Sicily, where they are doing well. Feketre and Asfaw named their son Yeabsera, which means “gift of God.”

Two other pregnant women on the same vessel miscarried at sea.

Harrowing stories are unfortunately far too common as tens of thousands of refugees flee Tunisia, Libya, and other war-torn nations en route to Europe. Italy is not their final destination, but it is the first point of entry to where most want to go. Over 20,000 illegal immigrants have arrived on the island of Lampedusa since January. Many of them are Tunisian nationals who are deported back to their homeland. But increasingly, refugees are arriving from Libya, Sudan, Somalia, and Ethiopia, and have been displaced by fighting in Libya and qualify for asylum. They are kept on the island or moved to other points in Italy and processed, given temporary residency and funds to try to rebuild their lives.

Italy is, in essence, turning a blind eye as immigrants escape, unable to logistically stop them and frustrated that no one is helping.

The immigrant population on the island has now reached 6,200—that’s 1,200 more than the resident population. On Sunday, local fishermen anchored their boats to block the harbor as listing boats turned to head toward Sicily. Lampedusa’s 850-bed detention center is far over its capacity and many of the island’s hotels have been sequestered by police to house women and children. Humanitarian agencies dealing with the problem only have enough food for 4,200 immigrants; meaning 2,000 will not be fed until more provisions arrive. Italian President Giorgio Napolitano called the situation “unacceptable.”

"Those overseeing the situation in Lampedusa must intensify their efforts, as should have been done already,” he said in a national address. “The flow of resources necessary to move these immigrants to individual Italian regions can not waiver. There cannot be a region that agrees to accept some of the immigrants and another part of the country that says no. "

But once off the island, they are no longer Italy’s problem. They become Europe’s concern. Last week, when hundreds of immigrants were moved to the Meneo “solidarity village” near Catania, Sicily, Italian television crews who set up at the back of the camp filmed scores climbing the barbed wire fences and running off into the countryside.

Residents fear that because these immigrants did not wait to be processed for refugee status and to be given funds to get started, they will have to resort to petty crime to survive. In Manduria in Puglia, hundreds of immigrants who had been transferred there on Monday escaped from the detention center and less than half were picked up later. The rest are likely already making their way north through Europe’s open borders. Women in the Manduria, four of whom are pregnant, have been sequestered in private areas of the camps after complaints of sexual assault.

Italy is, in essence, turning a blind eye as immigrants escape, unable to logistically stop them and frustrated that no one is helping. "The issue of immigration, the issue of Lampedusa, belongs to the whole of Europe,” says Renato Schifani, president of the Italian senate. "We are faced with a historic event and Europe must make its voice heard. Leaving room for misunderstanding between local citizens and immigrants or, worse, to abandon those who feel exposed on the front line, like Lampedusa, is a serious risk.”

A fleet of Italian naval ships is scheduled to arrive on Wednesday, as is Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, to take thousands of immigrants to points on the mainland—Sicily, Puglia, and Tuscany. Citizens are already gathering near the new detention centers to protest the arrival, claiming they should be sent to other European nations now, since that’s where they really want to go. In informal interviews with the migrants, humanitarian workers with UNHCR and the Red Cross say that well over half of the Tunisian migrants want to go to Germany, followed by France and England. Many have families in place there. Almost none want to stay in Italy, but it remains the only open door to Europe.

Barbie Latza Nadeau, author of the Beast Book Angel Face, about Amanda Knox, has reported from Italy for Newsweek Magazine since 1997 and for The Daily Beast since 2009. She is a frequent contributor to CNN Traveller, Departures, Discovery and Grazia. She appears regularly on CNN, BBC and NPR.