As coronavirus reappears in Italy, migrants become a target for politicians

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POZZALLO, Italy – As the summer vacation season draws to a close in Italy, a surge in Covid-19 cases is fueling a surge in anti-immigrant sentiment, even as the government says migrants are only one small part of the problem.

Sicily’s President Nello Musumeci ordered the closure of all migrant centers on the island last weekend, saying it was impossible to prevent the spread of the disease in the facilities. And although a court blocked it, saying it had no power to shut them down, its order underscored the challenges Italy faces as right-wing politicians seek to reignite a polarizing debate over the immigration to a country hard hit by the pandemic.

In Pozzallo, a town in southern Sicily that has the highest infection rate among newly arrived migrants, Roberto Ammatuna, the center-left mayor, found himself trying to balance fears of a influx of coronavirus with the obligation to rescue migrants in distress at sea.

“Our citizens need to feel safe and protected, because we are here on the front lines of Europe,” he said in an interview in his office overlooking the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean. “Nobody wants migrants sick with Covid,” but, he said, “we can’t stop rescuing people at sea.”

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