Italy adopts controversial law against illegal immigration

4th July 2009, Comments 0 comments

The European Commission announced it would examine the new measures to determine whether they comply with EU norms, warning that "automatic expulsion rules for entire categories are not acceptable."

Rome -- Italy adopted a tough law against illegal immigration last week, including a measure allowing citizens to mount their own patrols, despite fierce criticism from rights groups and the Vatican.

The European Commission announced it would examine the new measures to determine whether they comply with EU norms, warning that "automatic expulsion rules for entire categories are not acceptable."

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had made tougher immigration rules a cornerstone of the election campaign that saw him returned to power in May 2008.

The senate, Italy's upper parliamentary chamber, endorsed a vote by the lower house in May bringing the package of measures into full force with 157 in favour, 124 against and three abstentions.

Under the new law, illegal immigration becomes a criminal offence; anyone caught housing an illegal immigrant could face jail; and parents registering a baby's birth have to present papers to show they are legal residents.

During its slow passage through parliament, the opposition denounced the measures as reminiscent of Italy's fascist era.

Perhaps the most controversial measure permits "citizens groups" to mount patrols on the lookout for public order offences.

After objections that they would be little more than vigilante groups, the local authorities will monitor their activities.

The measure was particularly sought by the fiercely anti-immigration Northern League, part of Berlusconi's right-wing coalition government. The Northern League has a strong presence in the richer northern part of the country.

In parliament, the opposition put up a bitter fight against the bill.

Dario Franceschini, leader of the Democratic Party, compared it to the racial purity laws introduced by Benito Mussolini's fascist regime in the 1930s onwards.

Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, a senior figure in the League, dismissed the charge as "laughable."

The new law makes illegal immigration a criminal offence punishable by a fine of between 5,000 and 10,000 euros (7,000 and 14,000 dollars) and immediate expulsion.

Berlusconi had originally intended to make it a jailable offence but was forced to reconsider because of overcrowding in the prison system, which has reached record levels.

Parents will also have to present their passport or residency permit when they declare the birth of a child, which some critics have warned could lead to a generation of "invisible" children growing up outside the system.

The new law would "deprive children of their most basic rights," said Raffaele Salinari, the president of the Italian branch of Terre des Hommes, a campaign group dedicated to protecting the rights of children.

It also extends the period of detention for illegal immigrations to six months from the current two months to allow more time for them to be identified so they can be sent back to their home country.

Italian writers including Andrea Camilleri, Antonio Tabucchi and Nobel prize winner Dario Fo signed a statement denouncing "discriminatory standards against immigrants, unknown in Europe since the era of racial laws."

An official with Catholic organisation Sant'Egidio estimated the number of illegal immigrants in Italy at between 400,000 and 500,000 and said many are employed by families to care for the elderly or children.

"With this law, we introduce the idea that being an immigrant and clandestine means being a delinquent," said Daniela Pompei.

While other European countries have not actually criminalised illegal immigration, several, including France and Greece, have adopted similar measures.


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