New Migrants Flock to Italy, Intensifying Immigration Debate

New Migrants Flock to Italy, Intensifying Immigration Debate

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MILAN —Thousands of Tunisians and other North Africans fleeing to the southern islands of Sicily and Lampedusa are forcing the immigration issue to the top of Italy’s political agenda once again.

Meanwhile, Italy’s existing immigrants—who make up about 7 percent of the population and have been under siege in recent years—plan to show that they are a vital part of the country’s economy and culture by taking to the streets for a second “A Day Without Us” general strike on March 1.

Since mid-January, around 6,500 people have arrived in Italy by sea, many from Tunisia, which is only 70 kilometers, or 43.5 miles, from Sicily. Italy declared an immigration emergency on Feb. 12, the day after Egyptian protests forced Hosni Mubarak to resign as president.

Now the uprising in Libya has prompted predictions by the European border control agency, Frontex, of a new influx of 500,000 to 1.5 million people towards Italy, Malta and Greece. According to some Italian officials, at least 50,000 North Africans will flee from civil war in Libya in coming days, and Italy’s Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa has warned Europe to prepare for migrations on a “biblical scale.”

Speaking in Brussels on Feb. 23 at the start of a two-day meeting on the refugee crisis, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said Italy “cannot be left” to handle the exodus.

But ministers from other countries accused him and other Italians of fear-mongering, and indeed, Maroni’s concerns about immigration are nothing new.

Italy’s Tea Party

Maroni is one of the most influential people in the Northern League, Italy’s third-largest party, whose tough-on-immigration position—rooted in the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in Northern Italy—have led some to equate it with the Tea Party in the United States. Of the 4.5 million immigrants registered with Italy’s National Institute of Statistics, more than 2.5 million live in the north.

Maroni is also one of the closest allies of beleaguered Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who goes on trial in April on charges of paying an underage prostitute—ironically, an immigrant from Morocco— for sex and then using his influence to cover up his alleged crime. The Northern League’s backing has been key to Berlusconi’s remaining in power, despite his many legal problems.

Berlusconi’s opposition to immigrants goes back many years. During his previous government, in 2001, Italy passed the so-called Bossi-Fini law, a tough policy that imposed annual quotas on the number of foreign workers and only allowed immigrants with existing job contracts to obtain residency permits. In 2008, Berlusconi won re-election for a fourth time as Italy’s leader thanks largely to his campaign against immigrants, which was echoed and amplified by the many media outlets that he controls.

In 2009, the Berlusconi government, backed by the Northern League, pushed through a so-called Security Law (“Pacchetto sicurezza”) that makes it a felony to be an illegal immigrant. The law had widespread support among Italy’s working class, which has been hard hit by the recession and blames immigrants for the high rates of unemployment. According to a new poll by Demos & Pi, 31 percent of Italians believe that immigrants endanger the public order and citizens’ personal security.

In December 2010, another part of the security law took effect, requiring immigrants to pass an Italian language exam in order to obtain a long-term residency permit.

Security Agreements with Tyrants

During the 2008 campaign, the Northern League promised to stop the arrival of immigrants (mostly refugees) in Southern Italy. Part of the security policy included agreements with North African and Middle East dictators, including Libyan Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, to stop refugees before they could reach international waters.

“As soon as those allies fell, people started to leave again and head for Italy,” said Gianfranco Schiavone, who represents the Immigration Law Studies Association (ASGI), “and at this point, the Italian government cannot hide it anymore. So Minister Maroni is now fostering fears, which helps increase support for his party, saying that these refugees might include terrorists.”

Here again, Maroni’s claims are nothing new. In Italian media, news concerning immigrants invariably focuses on crime and violence.

Yet according to the National Council of the Economy and Labour, only 38,873 immigrants (0.7 percent) are currently in Italian jails. Meanwhile, the mainstream media neglects the millions of ordinary people from around the world living honest lives, working hard, contributing to Italy’s well-being. That’s why immigrants are preparing a strike on March 1, as they did in 2010.

Last year thousands of immigrants, but also many Italians, demonstrated peacefully in some 60 cities in the north and south, wearing something yellow to show their solidarity. Not only did they stay away from work, but they also avoided buying anything in Italian shops and supermarkets. The idea started in France, organized by groups using Facebook.

This year’s strike is being organized by the so-called 1st March 2011 movement. “We are brought together by awareness of the importance of the social, cultural and economic contribution of immigration to our country,” the movement says on its blog.  “We are outraged by the smear campaign against foreigners in Italy, which has led to a barbaric, racist atmosphere and the adoption of discriminatory laws which are far from the principles and the spirit of our Constitution.”

Cécile Kyenge Kashetu, spokesperson for the activists, said this year’s strike will also be dedicated to people who are fighting for democracy and freedom in places like Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia. The right to emigrate, the movement says,  is recognized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “Human history is the history of migrations, without which there would have been no civilization process in the world and development of cultures.”