Italy Attempts To Tackle Immigration

August 07, 2006 05:41 PM ET
Italy attempts to tackle immigration
Financial Times News

On the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, scarcely a week passes without the arrival of boatloads of illegal immigrants braving desperate conditions to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa.

Dozens drown even before sighting Italy, hundreds are holed up in Lampedusa's solitary and severely overcrowded immigration centre, and the authorities expect thousands more to pour in by the end of the year.

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“The island has become a militarised zone,” said Tot Martello, the island's former mayor. “The sound of helicopters is deafening. No one does anything except talk about the immigrant landings. Tourists are going to other places.”

Understandably, Lampedusa's plight captures the imagination more readily than the prosaic statistic that a mere 10 per cent of Italy's annual intake of illegal immigrants arrive by sea.

About 15 per cent enter by crossing land frontiers, whilst the remaining 75 per cent, or about 100,000 people, are foreigners who overstay their visas but have, in many cases, found low-paid jobs in service industries and agriculture.

It is this bald truth that lay behind the centre-left government's announcement last month that it intended to offer legal status to 350,000 immigrants from non-European Union countries who are already working in Italy.

In addition, the government approved a decree last Friday that halves the time that legal immigrants must wait before applying for Italian citizenship to five from 10 years.

Contrary to public perceptions, however, the chief beneficiaries of such measures may be not Africans, or people from Islamic countries, but Europeans in particular, immigrants from the former communist states of eastern Europe.

According to Istat, Italy's national statistics institute, there were 903,000 eastern Europeans from non-EU countries legally resident in Italy on January 1, 2005, making them the biggest bloc of foreigners by geographical origin.

They included 317,000 Albanians, 249,000 Romanians, 93,000 Ukrainians and 38,000 Moldovans figures that come as no surprise to anyone who knows the numerous small towns south of Rome where such immigrants work as cleaners, gardeners and mechanics.

By contrast, Africans legally resident in Italy numbered 642,000, among whom Moroccans were much the largest community, accounting for 295,000 of the total.

The next largest group consisted of Asians some 405,000 in number, including 112,000 Chinese, 83,000 Filipinos and 54,000 Indians.

Lastly, there were 230,000 people from the Americas, with 53,000 Ecuadoreans, an equal number of Peruvians and other Central and South Americans making up the vast majority.

In all, 2.4m foreigners were registered as living in Italy, although the figure today may be closer to 2.8m, or 4.8 per cent of the population, according to Caritas Italiana, a Roman Catholic organisation that specialises in immigration studies.

Such estimates suggest that Italy has significantly fewer legal immigrants than Germany and France, where the numbers are officially put at 7.3m and 3.5m respectively.

Yet Italy, in the 19th and 20th centuries, was a country that exported rather than imported people to the US, Canada, Argentina, Australia, Germany, France and elsewhere. Indeed, the diaspora is so large that Italians abroad have special representation in parliament: 12 members of the lower chamber, and six senators.

The converse phenomenon of large-scale immigration is one that many Italians are still coming to terms with, a point appreciated by Romano Prodi, prime minister.

Defending his plan to smooth the road to Italian citizenship, he said on Sunday: “What's best? That foreigners remain foreigners in Italy, or that they become citizens participating in the national community to which they contribute their work and taxes?”

Yet some politicians in the centre-right opposition are not ashamed to exploit voters' anxieties by reminding them of last year's violence among African and Arab communities in France.

“With its harmful decree on easy access to citizenship, the government risks creating in Italy what happened in the suburbs of France,” said Isabella Bertolini, a member of Forza Italia, the party led by ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi.