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Italian migration policy draws fire

File photo of an immigrant rescued by Italian authorities off Lampedusa, August 2008

Italy has been transformed in recent decades from a nation of emigrants to a target country for mass immigration. Aidan Lewis reports on the Italian government's response to the tensions that have ensued, and the concerns raised by human rights groups and Italy's European partners.

Edward Ampadu stands with his companions in a damp, abandoned factory that is home for the winter to more than 600 African immigrants.

There is just one tap, and the men are living in shelters made from cardboard boxes, squatting while they look for work picking citrus fruit in the fields of Calabria, on the country's southern toe.

Most arrived by a dangerous route through the Sahara desert and across the Mediterranean, and most have no legal right to be in Italy.

"Everybody here is struggling," says Edward, a 42-year-old from Ghana. A poor harvest means fewer jobs to go round this year, he says, and the migrants say they need help to survive.

Edward Ampadu, January 2009

"We are appealing to the authorities. They know that people are here, and therefore they need to help."

These agricultural workers represent the challenges facing a wandering, immigrant underclass in Italy.

But while the migrants look to Rome for help, Rome looks to Europe.

Italy and other "frontline" Mediterranean countries have been offered little help as they struggle with an issue that concerns the whole continent, the government says.

Its reaction to the problem, meanwhile, has drawn sharp criticism from human rights groups and European institutions.

Amid public alarm over an immigrant influx it has sent soldiers on to the streets, fingerprinted Roma (Gypsy) communities, and encouraged rapid expulsions and repatriations.

Some observers say Italy's recent focus on border controls and security neglects integration policy, at a time when the immigrant population has grown to more than four million, almost 7% of the total.

"Italy's becoming a caricature," said Sergio Carrera, a research fellow at the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies.

"It's becoming the example of a very extreme political discourse framing migration as a security issue, and justifying the implementation of very restrictive policies, having huge implications for human rights, fundamental rights, and social inclusion."

Sea patrols

Immigration is now an emotive, front-page issue in Italy, and a rallying cry for the Northern League, a partner in Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right government.

IMMIGRANTS IN NUMBERS
Foreign residents: 3.7 million
Irregular immigrants: 650,000
Arrivals in 2007: 346,000
Arrivals by sea, 2008: 36,000
Sources: Istat, Caritas-Migrantes, UNHCR

The focus of media attention is often Lampedusa, the tiny Italian island south of Sicily that is the arrival point for most of those - including many of the farm workers in Calabria - who complete the journey from North Africa.

Analysts say those arriving by sea make up only a fraction of total annual arrivals, and that most irregular immigrants in Italy enter legally then overstay.

But the government points out that the estimated 36,000 would-be immigrants landing on Italy's shores last year accounted for more than half the irregular entries to Europe by sea.

Roberto Maroni, Italy's Northern League interior minister, said in January that 2009 would mark the "end of the landings", promising that a long-awaited pact to patrol coasts with former colony Libya would come into effect.

Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, January 2009
My concern as interior minister is to guarantee the highest possible levels of security, first and foremost by combating clandestine immigration
Roberto Maroni

To the anger of islanders and immigrants, who both staged protests, he also announced that all adults would be kept on Lampedusa while asylum requests were processed. This quickly led to severe overcrowding and the decision was reversed, but concerns remain over conditions on the island, and alleged political pressure for rapid expulsions.

Together with Greece, Malta and Cyprus, Mr Maroni also issued a new plea for the EU to "make a more effective effort" at stemming the flow of immigrants, including through its recently established border patrol agency, Frontex.

"We believe that [border] security in the Mediterranean is directly connected to the security of the whole European Union," he said.

Frontex ran 150 days of joint sea patrols in the central Mediterranean in 2008, while in a separate initiative earlier last month, EU external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner offered Libya 20m euros (£18m) to help boost border controls.

Security bill

Italy's hardline approach to immigration policy is not unique, says Hugo Brady, an expert at the Centre for European Reform in London.

"In the main they only reflect sentiments which can be seen in a lot of other West European countries - that the time for tolerant immigration policy in their mind is past," he said.

File photo of Italian soldiers patrolling with Carabinieri at a metro station in Rome, August 2008
Soldiers have been on the streets of Italy's main cities since last summer

Even so, he added the Italians had been "marked out by their extremity".

Among the measures that have caused concern among EU partners is the Italian government's decision to declare a state of emergency in Rome, Milan and Naples last summer, deploying troops in the streets as part of a crackdown on illegal immigration.

Last month, an emergency decree designed to tackle rapes - many of which have been blamed on immigrants - gave official blessing to the formation of citizens' street patrols.

A security bill awaiting final approval in the Italian parliament also contains several controversial provisions, including:

  • procedures for medical staff to denounce illegal immigrants
  • making illegal immigration a criminal offence punishable by a fine of 5,000-10,000 euros (£4,400-8,800)
  • prison terms of up to four years for those who defy expulsion orders

Thomas Hammarberg, Commissioner for human rights at the Council of Europe, a pan-European body that promotes democratic principles, says he is worried about a decision to prolong the presence of the army in cities.

"We're talking about police functions here," he said. "It just dramatises the problems and tends to lead to hysteria."

'European solution'

Asked to justify the government's security-focused approach to immigration, Mr Maroni cites crime statistics for 2007.

"The percentage of crimes linked to non-Italians was more than 35% and the non-Italians do not account for 35% of the people in Italy," he said.

"All interpretations are legitimate. My concern as interior minister is to guarantee the highest possible levels of security, first and foremost by combating clandestine immigration."

File photo of Council of Europe (COE) Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg, August 2008
Thomas Hammarberg is critical of Italy's approach

On some issues the government has been forced to back down, under pressure from the EU.

These include a provision for the expulsion of EU citizens that was devised for Romanian Roma and judged to clash with European rules on free movement.

It was withdrawn last year after the European Commission threatened to start infringement proceedings.

Italian policies are coming under increasing scrutiny as the EU struggles against concerns over sovereignty to devise a common immigration approach, analysts say.

In October EU states took a step towards this by signing a non-binding immigration pact that encourages readmission treaties with countries of origin, selective immigration, and an end to mass amnesties for illegal immigrants of the kind used in Spain and Italy.

But for some human rights activists, the EU needs to play a firmer role protecting immigrants in member states and backing integration.

Mr Hammarberg criticises Italy's criminalising of immigrants as the "wrong approach".

"I think [the idea] is beginning to spread that there is a need for a European solution," he says.

"The situation with Greece and Italy in particular calls for a much faster process of integrating the European countries' policies on migration, so that you don't have a competition downwards where people introduce fairly draconian policies in order to avoid people coming to their country."



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