Italy’s European Union partners are concerned about reports that the government intends to grant legal status to 500,000 illegal immigrants, European Commission Vice President Franco Frattini said on Friday.
Frattini noted that new community procedures oblige governments to inform Brussels about plans to legalise migrants. The Commission consults other members and then gives its view of the planned move.
The official’s remarks came amid polemics in Italy over Welfare Minister Paolo Ferrero’s talk of an imminent decree to give out additional residency permits.
The EC vice president, who has the immigration brief in Brussels, said the Commission had received no official communication from Italy on such a measure.
“There have only been interviews in the media,” said Frattini.
“It’s not my job to judge this behaviour, but to announce in interviews that you intend to give legal status to some 500,000 people… is not positive for the flow of new illegal immigrants towards Italian shores and it arouses the concern of other member states”.
He did not say which countries had voiced concern over the Italian minister’s statements.
Under immigration legislation passed by the previous government of Silvio Berlusconi, an additional quota of 170,000 new residency permits was decided for 2006.
Illegal immigrants queued up for days outside post offices in March to present their applications, which had to include proof that the bearer had a job.
In the end almost 500,000 applications were presented. Of these the first 200,000—more than the original quota allocated—are expected to be officially granted in a few days.
Minister Ferrero, a member of the Communist Refoundation Party, told the press this week that the government intended to legalise the others too. This set off a political storm as the centre-right coalition accused the new government of practically inviting illegal immigrants to set sail for Italy.
Frattini, who was part of Berlusconi’s government until he moved to Brussels in 2004, stressed that his observations were not politically motivated.
“Political polemics have nothing to do with the European rules that I have to make sure are respected,” he said, voicing confidence that Premier Romano Prodi would make sure EU procedures were followed. But on a technical level he pointed out that 500,000 applications for legal status did not necessarily correspond to 500,000 real jobs.
Frattini also announced that in June he would send a team of EC officials to Libya to assess the situation on the country’s southern border in the Sahara Desert, with a view to helping immigration patrols there.
One of the main routes for would-be immigrants aiming to reach Europe is through the desert from central Africa, into Libya and up to ports on the northern coast. Here they pay organised crime groups to ferry them in creaking boats towards Italy’s southern shores.
Interior Undersecretary Marcella Lucidi, of the Democratic Left, sparked further polemics this week by promising an end to the policy of flying illegal immigrants who came from Libya straight back to that country.
She said this controversial policy, brought in by the Berlusconi government, would be discontinued because Tripoli was not a signatory of the Geneva Convention on Refugees.
Nevertheless, Interior Minister Giuliano Amato met the Libyan ambassador on Wednesday to confirm existing cooperation in the area of illegal immigration.
Frattini also stressed the importance of cooperating with Libya for Europe’s battle with clandestine migrants.