The Original Salvini

He might was well be a migrant: Barack Obama greets Silvio Berlusconi. London, 2008.

Recent tragic reports of boatloads of African immigrants crossing from Libya to Lampedusa, a 12 square mile island off of the coast of Sicily, have transfixed local, regional and international audiences.

The arrivals have accelerated a law and order approach to irregular immigration promised by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi during his election campaign in 2008 and distilled in the recent public promise to “be mean to illegal immigrants” by Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, a leader in the anti-immigration Northern League political party.

But forceful public diplomacy, new and reinvigorated bilateral repatriation agreements with source countries, outreach to the EU, extended detention of irregular immigrants and tough security legislation have failed to stop the flows of irregular immigrants.

The dramatic plight of the boat people, most of whom are undocumented, masks the fact that they constitute less than 15 per cent of total arrivals of irregular migrants (although there was a 75 per cent surge in the number of immigrants arriving by boat in 2008 and the trend line in the first quarter of 2009 appears constant).

The majority of irregular immigrants present in Italy — estimated to number up to 650,000 but the number is likely even higher — arrive by land, air or sea. Arriving from non-EU countries, primarily Morocco, Albania, China, Ukraine and the Philippines, they have obtained visitors visas and overstay, encouraged by Italy’s porous borders and history of “regularising” illegal immigrants.

Although Italy successfully expelled some 25,000 persons in 2008, a majority of expulsion orders are not executed because of a lack of resources; Italy has less than 3,000 available beds for detention. In addition to the irregular migrants from non-EU countries, Italy is a popular destination for migrants from Eastern European countries such as Romania and Bulgaria, whose citizens are able to move freely following EU accession in 2007.

Frustrated by the non-stop flow of migrants to and through Italy, government officials complain privately about Libya’s complicity in the trafficking of refugees and the failure of the EU to do more to help the southern tier states cope with the problem. They have mounted an aggressive diplomatic campaign with affected states to win their cooperation in limiting irregular flows to Italy, including hosting a conference 16-17 April for police chiefs of 72 nations.

Although interior ministry officials have told the embassy that they believe there is little terrorist threat from irregular immigrants, and government statistics reveal an overall drop in crime in all major Italian cities in 2008, Prime Minister Berlusconi, Interior Minister Maroni, other senior officials, and the Italian press (of which Berlusconi controls a majority) continuously hype a connection between crime and terrorism and illegal immigrants.

Critics of the government’s approach argue that Italy needs a comprehensive integration policy that acknowledges the demographic changes in Italian society — an ageing population, a declining birth rate and the presence of some four million foreign residents in a population of 60 million.

They argue that immigration should be treated as a resource, not a threat, and fear that scapegoating irregular immigrants will radicalise Italy’s ” second generation” of legal migrants, including more than one million Muslim immigrants. Two-thirds of Italy’s immigrants are working in Italy’s industrialised north. Most work in small firms. The balance engage in family care throughout Italy and in seasonal agricultural work predominantly in the south.

Although all states are required under international law to render assistance to refugees in distress, there is a presumption in Italy that the Italian border police undertake the lion’s share of the response to distress calls, a perception shared by NGOs.  One small slice of the illegal immigrant population is well-documented: the approximately 15 per cent who make their way from Africa across the Mediterranean in flimsy and overcrowded boats.

One former member of the Carabinieri who worked for Interpol told us that when FRONTEX, the EU border control agency, receives reports of boats in distress, all governments in the region are notified, but only the Italians regularly take active steps to rescue the migrants.

Government and NGO officials tell us, however, that the majority of irregular immigrants enter Italy with a visa and then overstay. Italian border police chief Rodolfo Ronconi asserted that 57 per cent of immigrants who enter Italy with a visa overstay. Most arrive through the land border in the northeast but also through air and sea ports.

Vincenzo Delicato, a senior director of the National Police, told us that these illegal immigrants are primarily from Morocco, Albania, China, Ukraine and the Philippines. Government statistics indicate that only 20 per cent of illegal immigrants subject to an expulsion order is actually repatriated. For example, in Milan in 2007, only 653 persons out of 3,088 subject to an expulsion order were in fact repatriated.

According to the vice president of immigration for Caritas, Le Quyen Ngo Dinh, ” Italy does not really know how they arrive and how many they are,” meaning that most visitors are not subject to border control or judicial review.

Fundamentally, argues Ngo Dinh, Italy lacks the structural capacity to manage the large numbers of illegal migrants to the country. As Paolo Ciani, who helps immigrants for the Italian charity Sant’Egidio, said simply: “Not only is the government policy (dealing with immigrants) morally wrong, it’s ineffective.”

Adapted from a State Department report (2009). Photograph courtesy of 10 Downing Street. Published under a Creative Commons license.