Italy Rocks The Boat On Immigration

Italy rocks the boat on immigration
Italys new policy of turning away boats bearing illegal immigrants and asylum seekers has met with harsh criticism

Wanted in Rome (Italy)
June 10, 2009

In early May the Italian government, showing an unusual degree of determination, put into effect a new, hard-line policy against illegal immigrants arriving in the country by sea. The turn of the screw against the boat people, in large part Africans, who over the last several years have been arriving in large numbers on Italys southern shores primarily Sicily and the Sicilian island of Lampedusa has created great controversy; so great that for at least a few weeks it convinced politicians and members of the press to talk about something other than prime minister Silvio Berlusconis personal problems.

On 7 May, the day after the Italian coast guard returned some 139 would-be immigrants to Libyan coastal waters seemingly the first fruit of a new bilateral accord between Rome and Tripoli interior minister Roberto Maroni referred to the new policy of respingimenti, or rejection, as a historic turning point. In effect, the Libyans themselves had started intercepting boats carrying human cargo northwards a few days earlier but on this occasion since the barcone in question had moved into international waters they had asked Italy for assistance. The intervention of Italian naval craft understandably caught the public eye, leading to sharp criticism from the Vatican, the Italian bishops conference and even the chief rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, who recalled a painful episode in which a ship carrying Jewish refugees from Nazism was turned away from American shores.

More cutting, perhaps, was the harsh verbal opposition from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), its spokesperson in Italy, Laura Boldrini, and the UN itself. Most but not all of the Italian left also spoke out sharply, expressing shock and accusing the centre-right government of disregard for human rights, breaking the Geneva Conventions rules on the right to political asylum and condemning the undeniably poor and desperate refugees to an unknown and possibly terrible fate.

The Italian problem one that more and more thoughtful Italians, including some in the government, believe must be dealt with by Europe as a whole is twofold. On the one hand, it cannot and must not be forgotten that the boats bringing the immigrants to Italy are chartered and manned by traffickers who are the real criminals, lining their pockets and funding organised crime by financially exploiting the desperation of Africas poor. The other problem is one of legality. Most European countries and in fact many of the immigrants reaching Italy have final destinations further north believe that they can only absorb a certain number of immigrants and that they have the right to a say over who gets in and who doesnt. This has been true for years, but is even more relevant in the current economic crisis when many native Europeans fear being laid off temporarily or being made redundant.

The issue of respingimenti is, of course, a sticky one, but not without precedent. Several years ago, Spains socialist government headed by prime minister Jos Luis Rodrguez Zapatero began patrolling the southern Spanish coast together with the Moroccan coast guard to intercept boats bearing immigrants (nine per cent of the Spanish population is currently foreign-born). Hundreds of people seeking asylum in Britain are in camps on the northern coast of France. The United States deals sharply with Mexicans caught trying to cross its southern border that is when it apprehends them. And it has a hybrid policy towards Cuban boat people: if they have dry feet, that is if they have somehow found their way to land, they are given a chance to become legal. If they have wet feet they are intercepted and sent back home or, in the event that they fear persecution, they are settled in welcoming third countries.

In recent years, Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Spain have realised that bilateral agreements with the countries of provenance can be useful. One example is Italys accord to give economic assistance to Albania, not so long ago the primary source of apparently endless boatloads of illegal immigrants, in return for better policing of its sea borders, an agreement which has been extremely effective. But such accords are not effective with countries or regions that have little control over their own borders: hence the respingimenti or re-admission agreements such as the one with Tunisia.

The Italian government has vigorously defended its new policy on several grounds. Berlusconi, paradoxically (but what else is new?), has said that Italys identification centres (centri di identificazione ed espulsione), where immigrants who do make it to shore and other illegals are detained, can be compared to concentration camps and therefore that it is more humane to send them back to where they came from (or at least from whence they departed on their sea voyage). Other government exponents insist that as long as the respingimento occurs in international waters, Italy is within its rights.

The main sticking point appears to be the issue of political asylum. Italy has a pretty good record here: in a recent television interview, the Italian cabinet minister for relations with Europe, Andrea Ronchi, pointed out that there are currently 52,000 political refugees in this country (see below for official UNHCR figures). When it comes to boat people, however, the situation is fuzzier. There are varying estimates as to how many of the sea-borne immigrants could or would legitimately ask for political asylum. Possibly because of the ongoing conflict in the Horn of Africa, in 2008 about 70 per cent of total requests for political asylum in Italy came from people landing on Sicilian shores according to La Stampa of Turin. But in general, experts say, only a minority of the boat people would be eligible. These, the UN has said, cannot be ignored.

One suggestion has been that when Italian authorities board an intercepted ship, they could carry out a screening process on the spot (but that wouldnt work if the boats are stopped by Libyan patrols). Another proposal, made by Gianfranco Fini, the former leader of the right-wing Alleanza Nazionale party who is now speaker of the chamber of deputies, would involve using the existing Libya-based UN refugees office, or a joint European body based there, to examine asylum requests before anyone sets out to sea.

Undeniably, its a burning issue, but possibly exaggeratedly so. Recently, a full-page article in La Stampa quoted immigration experts, from the Catholic relief organisation Caritas to police, as saying that only between seven and ten per cent of Italys estimated 500,000 illegal immigrants arrive by sea. Another 40 per cent arrive by land (many smuggled in on trucks) and the rest are simply overstayers who entered legally and then never left.

The UNHCR statistical year book for 2007 puts the numbers of political refugees in Germany at over 600,000, in France at nearly 200,000, in Italy at 38,000, in Belgium at 32,000 and in Spain at 4,000. These figures include pending cases.