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Italys migrant tide

Print edition : Jun 20, 2008 T+T-

Illegal immigrants who were rescued by Italian coastguards on May 17 off Lampedusa island arriving at the islands port.-MAURICIO ESSE/AFP

The complex and highly charged issue of illegal immigration in that country encapsulates the problem confronting the ageing societies of Western Europe.

WHEN it rains in the charming lakeside town of Como in northern Italy, young Bangladeshi men are ready on nearly every street corner with a supply of cheap umbrellas to meet the needs of unprepared tourists. In the stately open piazzas of Milan and Turin, their compatriots approach couples while brandishing roses, hoping to sell them singly or in bunches. Meanwhile, fake designer bags are hawked on the pavements of Florence and Venice by young Moroccans, who also offer 220;ethnic jewellery and craft items. Street-food vendors in Rome, busy dishing out Italian favourites such as pizza or gelato or newer food crazes such as falafel, come from countries as far apart as Ecuador, Tunisia and Sri Lanka.

But these are only the more visible immigrants in Italy. There are more than 120,000 recorded Chinese immigrants and possibly many more unrecorded mostly working in the factories of northern Italy. They work alongside even larger numbers of workers from countries in Eastern and Central Europe such as Albania, Ukraine, Romania and the constituents of the former Yugoslavia. In the agricultural heartland, migrant workers now do most of the hard physical work involved in cultivation, the handling of livestock and the transporting of goods.

In the southern cities, both the regular and parallel economies are heavily dependent upon migrant workers, a significant proportion of whom are still illegal. The same economic pressures that make the northern factories use more and more foreign labour also push the drug rings, the arms trade and other illegal or quasi-legal activities to rely on cheaper and more easily controlled migrants.

But not so long ago, Italy was a nation of out-migration. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Italy provided more migrants to the United States than any other European country. Various cities of the U.S. got their Little Italy neighbourhoods, and Italians made themselves felt in American cuisine and culture through strands as diverse as the pizza and the Mafia.

Even as recently as the 1970s, there were more people moving out of Italy than there were coming in. And in any case, the numbers of both were relatively small and did not increase much until the mid-1980s. In 1985, out of a population of around 60 million, the number of foreign-born people in Italy holding a residence permit was estimated at only 423,000.

These features may have explained the rather relaxed attitude taken by most Italians towards immigrants, often in sharp contrast to the concerns expressed by their northern European neighbours. Certainly, migration was not a political issue until quite recently, and the flexible attitude to legality, especially in southern Italy, made people much more tolerant towards even illegal immigration. But over the late 1980s, there was a sudden expansion in the pace of immigration, with a doubling in the number of official immigrants in just five years and apparently also a large increase in unrecorded in-migration. In the 1990s, this was driven mainly by movements from Central and Eastern Europe, especially from neighbouring Albania and Romania, followed by labour migration from North Africa and Asia.

Official estimates suggest that the number of resident foreigners, those who have not received Italian citizenship, increased from less than 600,000 in 1992 to 2.67 million in 2005, or around 5 per cent of the population. Unofficial estimates suggest that including illegal or unrecorded immigration would bring the numbers to more than four million. Certainly, there has been a significant increase in immigration into Italy in the past decade and a half.

A recent survey by the charitable organisation Caritas found that for every 10 immigrants in Italy, five are from European countries, two from Africa, two from Asia and one from Latin America. Nearly 60 per cent of the immigrant community was found to live in northern Italy, with the rest divided between central and southern Italy.

Some of this increase in immigration is explained simply by demographics. Italy now has one of the oldest societies in the world, with a falling population. Despite the fact that it is overwhelmingly Catholic in terms of the declared faith of the resident population, it has the lowest birth rate in Europe. And longer life expectancy means that its declining population is ageing rapidly. In 2005, the resident population of Italian citizens decreased by 62,120; in contrast, 48,838 children were born to resident foreigners in that year.

But some argue that currently illegal immigrants find Italy more attractive than most other Western European countries for institutional reasons. Italy faces the obvious difficulty of controlling its borders, given its long coastline, and this has meant that boat people from various parts of the world arrive regularly on its shores despite the risks and dangers involved. Also, Italy has a significant informal economy, which consists not only of small enterprises, private care and domestic services but also of parallel and extra-legal activities. This encourages the use of unregistered workers who can be denied minimum wages and other legal benefits and allows such workers to be more easily hidden from the authorities.

Still others argue that public policies have been responsible for encouraging more illegal migration by exhibiting greater leniency at the time of entry and then periodically providing amnesty to or regularisation of earlier entrants. It is true that Italys recent immigration laws, even as they put greater controls on inflows and restrictions on immigrants within the country, are aimed at regularising the status of some employed migrants already residing in the country illegally.

Thus, between 1990 and 2002, various Italian governments passed four regularisation acts. In 1990, the so-called Martelli Law posited a number of restrictions on entry but also regularised more than 200,000 unauthorised migrants. Subsequent public action went further in terms of punitive action. The 1998 Immigration Act, for the first time, separated humanitarian and refugee issues from immigration policy and provided for tough action on illegal immigration, including deportation. This brought Italy in line with the Schengen Agreement that allows free movement in Europe between signatory states.

The Bossi-Fini Law of 2002, brought by the second Silvio Berlusconi government, introduced immigrant quotas, mandatory employer-immigrant contracts and stricter deportation practices. But even this law provided for amnesty for illegal immigrants who had worked and lived in the country for more than three months and for the legalisation of illegal immigrants employed either as domestic workers and home-helpers or as dependent workers.

In the past few years, however, the socio-political climate seems to have hardened further with respect to migrants. That is certainly suggested by the convincing electoral victory, in April this year, of a conservative political coalition that includes not only Berlusconis own party but also the anti-immigration Northern League.

One of the first actions of the new government was to approve a tough package of measures aimed at countering illegal immigration and crime. It is significant that the two have been clubbed together, unlike previous policies that were more implicitly sympathetic to immigration.

Sentences for illegal immigrants found guilty of a crime have been increased, with automatic expulsion for those sentenced to more than two years of imprisonment. Those promoting illegal immigration can be jailed or fined up to 50,000, and the property of anyone caught renting accommodation unlawfully to illegal immigrants can be confiscated. One of the more controversial features of the decree (which is yet to be voted into law) is to make illegal immigration itself a criminal offence.

Critics argue that there is a strong racist tinge to the current measures, which appear to be targeted at immigrants from developing countries. But they suggest a deep social conservatism rather than racism per se. Thus, some of the provisions target Romanian immigrants and ethnic Roma from other European Union countries. This is highly problematic because Bulgarian and Romanian citizens (including the Roma) can, since January 2008, live without permits in Italy and because there are many ethnic Roma with Italian citizenship. Nevertheless, the government has declared a state of emergency in Roma encampments in three cities and given prefects special powers to evict and arrest residents.

The government has justified the aggression by citing the popular mood. The Northern Leagues Umberto Bossi, now a Minister in the government, says: The anti-immigrant sweep was a positive thing because thats what the people want. Such official rhetoric may have even fuelled the recent wave of violence against both Roma and immigrants. In the middle of May, a crowd of several hundred people attacked a Roma camp on the eastern outskirts of Naples with sticks and firebombs after a 16-year-old Roma girl was accused of trying to steal a baby. A few days later, shops run by Bangladeshi immigrants were attacked, with windows smashed and goods damaged, in a part of Rome that is populated heavily by foreigners. There are vigilante groups on the prowl in some cities, threatening those who obviously look like foreigners.

Yet such reactions, and indeed the actions of the government, seem likely to get caught up in the contradictions of current Italian reality. The demographics mean that Italy must continue to rely on migrant labour, possibly even to an increasing extent in the near future. And the history of Italian emigration is too recent for the society as a whole to adopt an aggressively isolationist position. Indeed, most ordinary Italians seem to be appalled by the recent expressions of xenophobia.

The complex and highly charged issue of immigration in Italy encapsulated the problem confronting much of Western Europe, with its rich and ageing societies that seem to be unable to come to terms with the implications of either stagnation or dynamism.

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