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Failed immigration policy

Kirstin Hause / asbDecember 26, 2013

The northern regionalist political party Lega Nord has determined Italy’s immigration policy for years. The party has laid down rigid rules limiting entry for migrants - with disastrous consequences.

African refugees on a smal boat on their way to Lampedusa
Image: picture-alliance/ROPI

If you go to Gennaro's bakery these days, you will see fewer paper bags with pre-packed sandwiches next to the register than a couple of months ago. "Thank God," baker Gennaro said, "there are less boat people arriving in winter." Gennaro has been giving away sandwiches to the rawboned people who pass by his shop while being escorted from the beach to the village by the coast guards.

Lampedusa has become the embodiment of Italy's - and maybe even Europe's - unsuccessful immigration policy. Every year, thousands of refugees from Africa become stranded here after having risked their lives on unseaworthy boats.

If the attempt to cross the ocean from Africa to Europe goes wrong - and there are enough victims - then the world looks to this small European island and mourns. This was the case at the beginning of October, when more than 300 migrants drowned directly in front of the entrance to Lampedusa's harbor when their boat capsized.

If the crossing is successful, then the boat people are locked up in a refugee camp designed for stays of a few days. But in reality, they end up staying there for months.

And all of this happens behind closed doors as hardly anyone is allowed access to the camps. When Italy's head of government Enrico Letta visited the island together with the president of the European Comission Jose Manuel Barosso, their look at the tightly crammed refugees in the camp represented a pause in their official program.

Italy's head of government, Enrico Letta, and the president of the European Comission Jose Manuel Barosso visit Lampedusa
An EU delegation visited Lampedusa after the tragedy in October 2013Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Not a new problem

This is not the first time large numbers of refugees are straining the capacity of the small island. In 2011, nearly 1,000 Tunisian migrants landed on Lampedusa after Tunisian president Ben Ali was overthrown in the wake of the Arab Spring.

The government in Rome declared a state of humanitarian emergency, and interior minister Roberto Maroni criticized the "inactivity of other European states regarding the refugee problem."

Maroni is a top-ranking politician for the Italian party Lega Nord, which is known for its xenophobic tendencies and for trying its hardest to bar immigrants from entering the country.

Lega Nord was Silvio Berlusconi's junior partner and responsible for immigration policies until the former prime minister stepped down in November 2011. Lega Nord established strict rules and signed repatriation agreements with Libya and other African states to immediately fly immigrants back.

The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR protested because the new arrivals who had fled from dictatorship, civil war, and hunger were not even given a chance to apply for asylum. Lega Nord wasn't able to stop the influx in the end, anyway.

So the party made border crossing without a residence permit illegal and enacted a law restricting entrance to only those who already have an employment contract.

No legal changes

Despite promises from Letta to change the law, it is still in effect today. Italian aid organizations call it hypocritical and unrealistic, because hardly any Italian employee will hire a Malian or Eritrean they've never met.

A boat carrying migrants arrive in Lampedusa
Refugees prepare for an illegal, undocumented life in EuropeImage: picture alliance/dpa

Refugees know this, and prepare to live an illegal life. Those who get a chance flee from the refugee camps, disappearing to northern Italy or even northern Europe. Hundreds of thousands live in Italy, France, Germany and the Benelux countries without valid documentation.

The European Union has instructed southern member states like Greece, Spain and Italy to secure their southern borders - but this hasn't been successful. At this point not only Italians are complaining that they have been left to deal with the immigration problem on their own.

War among the poor

The fear that immigrants could take away jobs and cheap apartments prevails here, especially among the low-income population. "It's a war among the poor. Those who don't have much fight those who have even less," said Franciscan Father Vittorio Rigoni, who runs a food bank in Milan.

Rigoni provides more than 2,000 lunches for free every day, and yet it's not an impersonal process. Volunteer Alifio Petrassi, who has worked with the food bank for years, greets visitors at the food bank entrance.

But there have been times where he has been called names - not by the needy, but by neighbors who live close to the food bank. "They say we're taking such good care of immigrants that they will never return home," he said.

Second generation disillusioned

Italy has refused to see itself as country of immigration for almost 20 years. Citizens as well as politicians assumed that immigrants would only stay for a while - consequently, integration has not been systematically promoted to date.

Second-generation Nigerian-Italian girls Ramat and Joy
Ramat (left) and Joy (right) dream of living in LondonImage: DW/K.Hausen

Children of first-generation immigrants live to a degree outside of Italian society. Ramat and Joy are daughters of a Nigerian boat refugee, both 13 years old. They want to leave Italy as soon as they are finished with school.

"There is no future for us here," Ramat said. According to her there are not even enough jobs for Italian citizens. Dark-skinned people who go job-hunting automatically experience rejection, she added.

But neither Ramat nor Joy intend to return to their parents' home country either. They dream of living in London, where they want to study, work, marry and raise their children. "Our parents made the mistake to come to Italy, we won't repeat that," they said.