Italy cracks down on illegal immigrants, landlords
By NICOLE WINFIELD
May 13, 2009
ROME (AP) Italian lawmakers voted Wednesday to fine illegal immigrants up to euro10,000 ($13,670) and jail the people who house them, imposing stiff new penalties in an attempt to stem a flood of migrants on rickety boats from Africa.
The legislation approved by the lower house of parliament also lengthens the amount of time illegal migrants can spend in detention from two months to six months and allows towns and city officials to set up local citizen patrols.
Premier Silvio Berlusconi's conservative government is being pressured by the anti-immigrant Northern League party in its coalition to halt illegal migration as Italy's economy shrinks in the global downturn, like others across Europe.
But Italy's plight is particularly acute because its largely unpatrolled coastline and islands close to Africa make it a destination of choice for smuggling operations working out of Libya and other countries.
Some 36,000 migrants from Africa and elsewhere arrived in Italy by boat last year.
Under an immigration law adopted when Berlusconi was last in power, immigrants must have a job awaiting them in order to get a residency permit. If illegal migrants don't qualify for asylum, Italian authorities issue expulsion orders. But the Northern League has said those measures have failed to stem the influx, with hundreds of boat people continuing to arrive almost daily.
The new legislation makes entering or staying in Italy without permission a crime punishable by a fine of euro5,000-euro10,000 ($6,840-$13,670). Migrants would not face prison, but the bill provides for up to three years in prison for anyone who knowingly rents housing to an illegal immigrant at the time a lease is signed or extended.
Supporters of the bill easily won a 316-258 confidence vote. The measure must still be approved by the Senate, where Berlusconi's forces also enjoy a majority.
Some legal experts said that in real terms the new measures were merely symbolic because most illegal immigrants would not be able to pay the fine.
But critics charged they could further marginalize those living in Italy illegally by making them afraid to seek medical help or to register their children at birth for fear of being turned in to police, fined and expelled.
Italy receives the world's fourth-highest number of asylum claims each year after the United States, Canada and France.
As part of its crackdown, Italy last week started sending back to Libya boatloads of migrants it intercepted in international waters without first screening them for asylum claims. The U.N. refugee agency, the Vatican and human rights organizations voiced outrage, saying Italy was breaching international law.
The government, which has complained that it has been left by the European Union to deal with illegal immigration alone, has defended the new policy, saying the U.N. refugee agency can screen the migrants in Libya.
In Greece, a major entry point for migrants seeking a better future in the EU, illegal entry is a misdemeanor punishable by 6 months to 5 years in prison and a fine, though it is rarely enforced. People who employ illegal migrants face imprisonment of 3 months to 5 years.
There is no law criminalizing illegal immigration in Spain, another frequent entry point for African migrants. Nevertheless, the number of arrivals in Spain's Canary Islands has been decreasing over the past few years, thanks in part to better surveillance of African coasts and Spain's own economic crisis.
The Dutch actually pay illegal migrants, offering small amounts of cash as inducement for migrants to leave immediately after their requests to stay have been rejected, rather than burdening the legal system with further appeals.
Center-right lawmaker Rocco Buttiglione said Italy's new punishments could force migrants to turn to the Mafia or vigilante justice instead of the police.
But lawmaker Manuela del Lago of the anti-immigrant Northern League party said Italy was embarking on the right path.
“We don't understand why we have to keep them all here, and in other countries they don't take anyone,” she said.
In the past, critics of the Northern League's anti-immigrant policies have noted that many of northern Italy's industries which form the base of the Northern League's support rely on migrant labor to survive.
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