United Press International
News. Analysis. Insight.
October 13, 2004
Italy draws fire for anti-immigration rules
ROME -- In the days after a four-nation summit aimed at cooperating on a host of issues -- including developing a common policy on
illegal cross-Mediterranean immigration -- stalled amid disagreements, Italy showed it was willing to go it alone, expelling hundreds of
north African asylum seekers with only a cursory examination of their claims.
In recent months, Italy -- long seen as the Europe Union's poorly patrolled back door for migrants from Africa and Eastern Europe -- has
adopted a quick-return policy toward illegal immigration that has transformed it into one of Europe's hardliners on the subject.
Italy still shares a hundred-mile border with one non-EU country, Slovenia, but the bloc's eastward expansion has made illegal
immigration from the east more of a problem for new EU member states like Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Baltic countries. But
illegal immigration from North Africa and, to a lesser extent, from across the Adriatic Sea from Albania and Montenegro, has been on the
"Estimates are that more North Africans are probably entering the European Union illegally through points in Southern Italy, including the
islands (south of continental Italy), than from the rest of the European Union combined," Bernardo Tenzi, an immigration law expert and
author working at Roma Tre University, told United Press International. "Spain used to be the favored entry point; now it's Italy."
Spain -- along with France and Portugal -- was among the countries to send minister-level delegations to the summit hosted by Italian
Foreign Minister Franco Frattini in Rome Oct. 2-3. The talks failed to achieve a common policy on how best to curb illegal immigration,
though officials afterward hailed it as a stepping-stone to such an initiative at some future point. But Italy says it won't wait until then to
get tough on illegal immigrants.
"We know that any hint that Italy is being weak will be interpreted as an invitation to other potential immigrants," a spokesman for
Frattini's office told UPI. "We must be consistent and strong in order to send a message."
The spokesman said that Italy would not turn away legitimate asylum seekers whose lives could be in danger if they returned to their
troubled home countries. But that's just what critics say the country is doing by refusing to even let some arrivals apply for asylum before
being shipped off.
The latest large group, made up of some 200 mostly Egyptian, Tunisian, and Moroccan asylum-seekers, arrived on Oct. 10, just a week
after the close of the four-nation talks. The group touched European soil on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, a 12-square-mile speck
of land closer to the African nation of Tunisia than to the Italian island of Sicily. Within 24 hours of their arrival, they were flown off to Libya,
reportedly before any of them could file asylum papers.
According to statements from Italian Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu, a total of 1,787 illegal immigrants arrived on Lampedusa during
the eight-day period ending Oct. 8, and of those 1,153 were similarly sent to Libya. According to local media reports, most were quickly
repatriated to their home countries, though that has not been confirmed.
Since mid-September, at least 27 potential immigrants have died trying to make the 70-mile passage between Africa and Lampedusa.
More than 100 others have been reported missing.
"If the Italian government had not acted with determination, Lampedusa would be overrun with illegal immigrants," Pisanu said in a
statement to parliament. "The desperate people who think they can land in Italy illegally must know that they will be sent back to where
they came from as soon as they have received humanitarian aid. Our policies may seem cruel, but they will convince many people not to
make the dangerous trip" to European soil.
But the policy has been criticized by Italy's opposition parties and by human rights groups, who charge that the country's eagerness to rid
itself of its illegal immigration problem was almost surely denying some legitimate asylum candidates the chance to be heard.
"These expulsions are absolutely shameful," opposition parliamentarian Livia Turco said in a television interview following Pisanu's
comments to lawmakers. "Italy used to be a moral country, but that value is being shipped away (just like) the possible immigrants."
The issue is not going away. Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi has recently met with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and with incoming
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso to discuss the issue, and the country has streamlined the process required for
the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to meet with potential immigrants. But the asylum seekers keep coming.
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