After Denmark, Italy is the next European country to pass a tough new immigration bill designed to restrict the freedom of non-EU foreigners. Opponents say the harsh measures, including forced fingerprinting, are racist.
Kurdish refugees in Bari, Italy
Continuing along the European course set by Britain and Denmark last week, Italy’s parliament has just passed its own series of harsh new anti-immigration measures. The proposals, which include such draconian measures as mandatory fingerprinting for all non-European Union citizens, are designed to crack down on the number of illegal immigrants entering the country. Opposition groups, however, refer to the new bill as "unjust and racist".
In a vote of 279 to 203, the anti-immigration bill was approved by the largely conservative lower house of parliament on Tuesday. Prior to the vote, a heated debate erupted between the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the left-wing opposition, which lambasted the proposed law as racist and unjust. Several opposition politicians criticized the government, saying it was creating a climate of fear and hatred.
"There aren’t sufficient adjectives to describe this law: it’s unjust, fascist, disgusting, enslaving and racist," Graziella Mascia, a member of the Refounded Communist Party, told the lower house before voting against the bill.
Praising the vote’s outcome, Umberto Bossi, head of the right-wing Northern League Party and a member of Berlusconi’s cabinet, told reporters "in our electoral platform we promised a law which would sort out immigration, and we’ve won."
Immigrants or criminals?
In addition to increasing patrols of Italy’s coastline and its borders with eastern Europe, the new immigration bill attempts to cut down on the number of illegal immigrants already living and working in Italy.
The government, which has linked a rise in immigration with an increase in crime, will require all non-EU citizens and anyone from the United States or other non-European countries to be fingerprinted before applying for a "permesso di soggiorno" or permit to stay in the country.
Non-EU foreigners will only be able to reside in Italy if they have arranged work before coming to the country. Once they arrive in Italy, the foreigners will be required to show proof of a written employment contract. At that time the immigrants will receive a residency permit only for the duration of their work contract, for up to a maximum of two years. When their contract expires, the foreigners will be forced to leave Italy.
Immigrant families may only bring their children with them to Italy if they are under the age of 18. Anyone older is considered an adult and must apply separately for a residency permit as well as show proof of employment.
Any immigrant who returns to Italy after being expelled from the country will be treated as if he or she has committed a crime. And anyone who helps illegal immigrants enter Italy will be considered guilty of abetting a crime. Smugglers face prison sentences of four to 12 years and a fine of 15,000 euro for each immigrant they bring into the country.
Umberto Bossi has said that the new immigration control measures and fingerprinting are merely a means of keeping track of illegal immigrants. But human rights organizations and opposition politicians say the government’s bill treats immigrants as if they were criminals.
"It’s undignified of a civil country to equate illegal immigrants with criminals and to say that those who help illegal immigrants are committing a grave crime," said Oliviero Diliberto, leader of the Italian Communist Party.
Luciano Violante, head of the largest opposition party in the lower house, accused the government of "creating a climate of fear and hatred", which would only worsen the situation for the country’s immigrants and asylum seekers.
The Italian immigration issue
Despite the vocal criticism, the new immigration bill has been fully endorsed by the Italian government as a solution for what it see as a growing wave of illegal immigration.
Since taking office last year, Berlusconi and Bossi have made the control of immigration a central goal in their conservative administration. They have focused efforts on policing borders and waterways and tracking down illegal immigrants hiding out in the country. The number of expulsions of asylum seekers alone has increased by 30 percent in just the first year of Berlusconi’s government. And such strict measures seem to meet with widespread support among the Italian population.
Although Italy has a relatively small immigrant community of only about 2.2 percent of the entire population, recent opinion polls show that a majority of Italians fear excessive immigration and link illegal immigrants with an increase in crime. Public opinion began to turn in favor of a get-tough policy back in March when the government was forced to declare a state of emergency to deal with the sudden influx of some 1,000 Kurdish refugees arriving on the coast of Sicily in dilapidated ships.
While the current immigration bill still needs the final approval of the upper house, or Senate, before it can become law, Berlusconi and Bossi are already claiming a victory over what they refer to as "the hordes invading Italy’s shores".