BBC News, July 27, 2009
Proponents of Italy’s new anti-immigration laws say they are a much-needed response to a serious problem, but critics say they recall the policies of the fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, reports the BBC World Service’s Madeleine Morris in Milan.
“The life that I’m living in Italy is very poor. I don’t have documents. In Europe, if you don’t have documents, you are nothing–you are an empty vessel.”
Michael–not his real name–is a 19-year-old Sierra Leonean who came to Italy 15 months ago.
He crossed the sea from Libya in a small boat, along with 65 other people. Once they landed in Italy, he claimed asylum.
But Michael’s claim, along with the majority of asylum seekers who land on Italy’s shores, was rejected.
Since then, he has been living illegally in the northern city of Milan, struggling to survive under Italy’s increasingly tough policy on illegal immigrants.
I see that policy in action as we pass an internet cafe near the hostel where he is staying.
Four policemen enter the cafe and single out those of African descent, asking to check their official documents.
“They’re in here three or four times a week looking for people without papers,” Michael says.
Italy has come under fire from groups as diverse as the Vatican and the European Commission for its strict new anti-immigration laws, which were passed in early July.
Under the legislation, illegal immigrants are liable to pay a fine of 10,000 euros (£8,700; $14,200) and can now be detained by the authorities for up to six months.
In addition, people who knowingly house undocumented migrants can now face up to three years in prison.
The new law also permits the formation of unarmed citizen patrol groups to help police keep order.
The European Commission is investigating the new laws to see if they comply with existing EU legislation on immigration.
“Italy is absolutely not a racist country. We just want to be sure that the immigrants who arrive on our land want to be here to work, not to make crimes,” says Paolo Grimaldi, an MP for the right-wing Northern League.
Mr Grimaldi, whose party leader, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, ushered the new law through parliament, firmly believes Italy is facing an emergency.
With nearly 37,000 immigrants arriving on their shores last year, mostly via boats from Libya and Tunisia, many Italians agree.
“There are too many people. You see in the city, on the streets in Milan, two million immigrants, I think,” says one Milanese man, who did not want to give his name.
“I want to help people who are poorer than me, but I want to know where they come from and what they are going to do,” says Martina, a 23-year-old Northern League supporter. “It is better if they come here legally.”
According to Saskia Sassen, an expert on European immigration at Columbia University in New York, Italy’s new laws could be the beginning of “a catastrophic phase” for not only migrants but also Italian citizens.
“This law really alters the landscape by criminalising the violation,” she says.
“In the past you were in violation of the law. That doesn’t mean you were a criminal. This law means if you break the law, now you are considered a criminal. That’s a big deal.”
Mr Grimaldi readily admits that almost no illegal immigrants would be able to pay a 10,000-euro fine. In fact, he says, that is the point.
European Union laws oblige all 25 countries party to the Schengen Agreement, which allows passport-free travel across the area, to allow illegal immigrants to make two “mistakes”, and the new Italian law makes such “mistakes” more likely.
“We want to expel these illegal immigrants to their country of provenance,” Mr Grimaldi says.
“If they have already been arrested for something before, if they don’t pay the fine, we will have recidivism.”
The immigrant will have made two “mistakes”, and “so then we can make the expulsion”.
Italy issues very few visas to people who are already living in the country, and demand for work permits from potential immigrants greatly outstrips supply.
It quickly becomes a Catch-22 situation–illegal immigrants who have no visa are unable to get a job; those without a job are unable to get a visa.
As a result, both illegal and legal migrants have become an increasingly obvious presence on the streets of Italian cities.
At night, groups of men from across Africa, the Arab world and Asia roll out sleeping bags and cardboard boxes in Milan’s numerous historic piazzas.
By day, they get by however they can–some by selling fake designer handbags or toys, some by stealing.
Michael lived on the streets of Milan for eight months before being given a bed at Casa della Carita, one of a number of charity-run hostels in the city which house immigrants.
“I don’t have a job. I can’t go to the hospital if I am sick,” he says.
Beside him in the hostel’s courtyard, a disparate group of migrants from as far away as Afghanistan and Bangladesh pass the time playing cards.
“Italian people rescued me from their sea. If they didn’t want me they shouldn’t have rescued me,” Michael adds.