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Tuesday, 21 March, 2000, 17:32 GMT
Italy looks to migrants
immigrant boat, italian coast
Illegal immigration is a big issue for Italy
By David Willey in Rome

Italians, who have one of the world's lowest birth rates, are well aware that with the greying of their population they need more immigrants to maintain an active workforce and to pay growing social security costs.


Ageing Italy
Birth rate is 1.2 children per woman, compared to 2.1 needed to keep population stable
By 2050, the average age will by 53, compared to 41 now
41% of the population will be over 60 and 34% over 80
Source: UN Population Division
But attitudes towards new arrivals remain ambivalent.

Last weekend a group of Roman youths attacked and tried to set on fire some illegal immigrants from Africa sheltering under a bridge in a suburb of the capital.

The immigrants fled when police intervened, but the youths are being held on attempted manslaughter charges.

A quota system of official migrants has been set up - some 40,000 Africans, Asians and Latin Americans will receive residence and work permits this year.

But illegal immigrants vastly outnumber those admitted legally each year.

Some estimates put the present number of illegals as high as half a million.

Transit

Every night people smugglers bring hundreds of people from developing countries into southern Italy in small speedboats across the Adriatic Sea.

There have been many cases of accidental drowning as the smugglers sometimes dump their human cargo into the sea and tell them to swim for their lives.


Elderly woman
Italy is worried about who will pay for the elderly
Many illegal immigrants are simply in transit to join their families already in other EU countries such as Germany, France or the UK.

A few are expelled from Italy after being kept in detention centres, but most manage to find temporary work as pedlars, or as seasonal agricultural workers.

The government is actively seeking to improve relations with people of other races and religions who are seeking to create new lives for themselves in predominantly Catholic Italy.

Muslims

Prime Minister D'Alema signed agreements on Monday with Jehovah's Witnesses and with Buddhists to enable them to enjoy the same rights as members of the Catholic faith.

But these are small minorities - most of Italy's new immigrants belong to the Muslim faith.

Caritas, the Catholic charity, reckons that there were almost half a million Muslims living in Italy legally in 1999, although other estimates put the figure at a million.

So far the government has failed in its attempts to sign a 'concordat' with Muslims.

Polygamous Muslim marriages are not recognised by Italian law, nor are Islamic schools recognised by Italy's education ministry.

The lack of any organised Muslim hierarchy with whom to negotiate, and squabbling among rival Islamic groups in Italy is the cause.

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