Italian government gets tough on immigration

Enlarge   Silvio Berlusconi

Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at a cabinet meeting in Naples

Tough new legislation to crack down on illegal immigration was unveiled by new Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi yesterday as he kept an election promise to get tough on the problem.

Top of the list was a jail sentence of up to four years for anybody found to be an illegal immigrant,  followed by immediate expulsion.

But there was immediate criticism that Italian taxpayers would have to pay to jail, feed and clothe illegals who should not have been in the country in the first place.

Opposition leader Walter Veltroni said that such jail terms  "are a useless and dangerous measure" which would  fill up the country's jails at vast expense.

Other critics pointed out it would be a massive extra burden on an already overloaded  judicial system.

A cartoon in leading Italian daily Corriere Della Sera showed a group of illegal immigrants arriving by boat in Italy below a caption reading:  "We're only here for four years,  then we are off."

But officials from Berlusconi's centre right coalition insisted the law would  "deter" illegal immigrants from even thinking of entering  the country as,  if caught,  they would "experience the Italian penal system." 

The legislation would set up  a fast-track system to deal with illegals from arrest to sentence.  Magistrates could jail offenders for up to four years.

It also bans the setting-up of unauthorised  camps by illegal immigrants, which in recent weeks have been targetted by vigilante groups hurling petrol bombs at their shacks. 

Enlarge   Silvio Berlusconi

Berlusconi used his first full cabinet meeting in Naples to focus on a garbage crisis there and draw up tough new controls on illegal immigration.

The violence has provoked accusations of racism and xenophobia against Italy.

The new package was unveiled in the southern Italian city of Naples,  which has been the scene of a series of protest as rubbish has been left uncollected and rotting in the streets because of a dispute over the building of new waste disposal plants.

Berlusconi, in an effort to show he would immediately tackle the country's problems, had pledged to hold his first Cabinet meeting there. 

As he and his ministers rolled into town in a motor cavalcade it was clear the city had undergone a  miraculous clean-up with tons of rubbish cleared from the streets of the centre.

Italy's Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, a member of the anti immigration Northern League party, drew up the illegal immigrant proposals which he said contained "necessary and urgent" reforms, which will take full effect by the end of July.

Officials said that 40 million Euro (£32mGBP) would be made available to fight illegal immigration.

This would be made up of extra money to fund police, army and prison guards.
The legislation promised to make it easier for Italy to remove European Union nationals regarded as undesirable, but gave few details on how that would be achieved.

Other measures include making it an offence to use  children to beg,  punishable by up to three years in jail.

Enlarge   Rubbish protests

Demonstrators use waste bins to set a barricade to protest against the rubbish crisis during the cabinet meeting

The government promised tougher action on illegal immigrants during its election campaign, following a rape and murder of an Italian woman by a Roma gypsy last November.

Maroni said the reforms were needed to deal with a major public order problem, which has particularly focused on Roma gypsy groups.

Referring to the torching of Roma camps last week after the attempted abduction of a baby, Maroni said his package would try to "prevent rage prevailing over civilised co-existence", amid fears that such episodes may recur.

Church groups have also spoken out against the proposals, with the leading Catholic charity Caritas describing the criminalization of illegal immigrants as "a disproportionate measure". 

Caritas director Vittorio Nozza said it would "simply clog up Italy's judicial and prison system further, without making any impact on the situation".

Enlarge   Stefania Prestigiacomo

Italy's Environment Minister Stefania Prestigiacomo and Relations with Parliament Minister Elio Vito arrive before for the cabinet meeting

Concerns have also been expressed by the Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg who sent a letter to Italy requesting clarification and urging politicians to do everything  possible to avoid "feeding xenophobia". 

However, the proposals enjoy strong support among Italy's centre-right majority, particularly with members of the Northern League, which traditionally favours tight controls on immigration. 

Government Programs Minister Gianfranco Rotondi said:"Europe does not need to worry because Italy has a strong democratic tradition - the illegal Roma camps will nevertheless be dismantled". 

Defence Minister Ignazio La Russia said the criminalization of illegal immigrants would not only make it easier to expel foreigners, it would also "act as a deterrent".

Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, a former EU justice commissioner, said future expulsions would be carried out in "full respect for European norms".

  If the reforms are approved, it would be the first time illegal immigration would be an offence punishable by jail.

Until now, illegal migrants have either been deported or, in the majority of cases, simply ordered to leave Italy, which many of them do not.

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