Italy cannot jail illegal migrants who flout an order to leave the country, the European Union’s Court of Justice ruled on Thursday–removing a key plank of Rome’s hardline policies on immigration.
Implementing a campaign promise to get tough on illegal migrants, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right administration introduced a law in 2009 making illegal overstay in the country a crime punishable by one to four years in prison.
But jailing migrants contradicts an EU directive on repatriation, whose main objective is ‘to set up an effective policy to drive out and repatriate third country nationals whose stay (in the EU) is irregular, while respecting their fundamental rights,’ the court said in a statement.
Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni–whose Northern League party routinely leads calls for tougher policies on migration–protested against the ruling.
‘I am disappointed because, first of all, other European countries criminalize illegal residence and they have not been censured,’ he said in Verona, according to the ANSA news agency.
French and British law does foresee detention for illegal migrants waiting to be deported, but in special illegal migrants’ centres rather than in ordinary prisons.
‘Today, again, Europe made our life more complicated, rather than giving us a hand,’ said Maroni, who last month questioned Italy’s EU membership after partners in the bloc refused to take some of the Tunisian illegal migrants who landed on its shores in recent weeks.
‘Why are they only targeting Italy?’ the minister asked.
A spokeswoman for the EU court of justice told the German Press Agency dpa that the situation in other EU members had not been taken into consideration because it had been asked to rule on a specific Italian case.
EU judges had been called by an Italian court in the northern city of Trento to give an opinion on the case of Hassen El Dridi, an Algerian who in 2010 was ordered to leave Italy within five days because he did not have a residence permit.
Having ignored that order, he was handed down a one-year prison sentence, which El Dridi appealed against.
The EU court–delivering its opinion in under three months, using a fast-track procedure introduced in 2008–ordered judges in Trento to ‘disapply’ the jail term prescriptions contained in Italy’s immigration laws.
Italy’s migration laws may take further knocks in the coming months, as the EU court said it is due to deliver 11 more fast-track opinions on legality of the country’s repatriation procedures.