FECL 57 (March 1999):


250,000 immigrants to be granted legal stay in Italy

The Italian Council of Ministers decided in February to grant legal stay to all aliens who entered the country and filed an application for a residence permit before 28 March 1998. There have been two other similar amnesty measures benefiting illegal immigrants over the last decade.

More than 300,000 applications have been filed, of which 250,000 are likely to be granted. The Italian amnesty scheme has raised some criticism from other EU-Member States which fear that Italian generosity could undermine EU efforts to deter would-be immigrants and refugees from entering Europe. The cross-border effect of the new Italian Amnesty measure was highlighted, when many "sans papiers" (undocumented aliens) from France were reported to be hurrying to Italian border towns like Mondane in the hopes of somehow capturing an opportunity to legalize their status.

The Italian Government has justified the amnesty as a necessary and non-recurring measure allowing it to tackle the problem of the hundreds of thousands of "clandestini" (undocumented aliens) already in Italy. The Government has come to the conclusion that any attempt to deport such a large number of people would be costly and ineffective. The Government hopes to solve the problem of existing illegal immigration before implementing new tight measures of immigration control ensuing from Italy's obligations under the Schengen Accords and EU JHA cooperation. The amnesty measure is based on the Government's assumption that these new measures of control will noticeably reduce "illegal" immigration to the country, but other EU countries continue to more or less openly question Italy's capacity and determination to control its borders. Among others, Germany, which appears to regard Italy as a developing country, as far as policing and border control is concerned, has repeatedly and pointedly insisted on its willingness to "assist" Italy in improving its border surveillance.


NATO fleet to help Italy control immigration

Similar distrust toward Italy can be made out in a recent NATO decision to task its Mediterranean fleet with monitoring traffic on the Adriatic Sea to help Italy prevent (mainly Albanian) migrants from reaching Italian shores. In late January, the Commander of the NATO fleet, Admiral David Stone, said his vessels will monitor traffic in the area and give timely information to the Italian Coast Guard and police on the movements of craft suspected of carrying migrants.

It is estimated that in January alone over 2,000 ethnic Albanian refugees arrived in Italy via the Adriatic Sea.

NATO's Mediterranean fleet consists of 8 warships and one support vessel from Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Britain, Turkey, Greece and the USA. It is a permanent rapid deployment force.


The "underground highway"

Two of the most popular clandestine sea routes into the EU land refugees in Italy. The first originates in Tunisia and will often terminate at the Italian island of Lampedusa - Italy's southernmost soil, and the favourite underground gateway for Africans. The second originates in Albania, where Italy is just across the Otranto Channel, and only sixty miles away. Kosovo-Albanians, Afghans, Kurds and Chinese are said to be the main travellers on this route, with their sea passage often being "booked" through "mafia gangs" in Albania.

The smuggling rings are said to be both highly organized and extremely profitable, with the reputed figure for passage from Albania to Italy being about $2,000. While the trip is expensive, the smugglers’ favourite craft are reported to be rubber dinghies and rafts driven by high-powered outboard motors, which typically disembark their passengers just short of the Coast, providing them (and their belongings) with a "refreshing dip" in the Southern Adriatic.

In a recent incident, Italian police rescued 23 refugees from Kosovo and Iraq after their dinghy lost power and began to swamp. The refugees said they had paid $2,000 each for the journey. However, the $2,000 fee is said to include additional attempts to smuggle one in (at no extra cost) should a "client" not succeed in his or her first effort.

Many underground immigrants are being found daily by the police at Italy's Puglia Coast during the early morning hours when most smuggling operations occur. Disturbingly, many of those found are children. Equally troubling, a number of refugees are also discovered floating (with their belongings) offshore, dumped into the sea by traffickers who sacrificed their passengers’ safety for an added measure of their own, as was the circumstance with a recent group of 20 Chinese.


Containment policies

In the meantime, Italy has upgraded its efforts to contain ethnic Albanian would-be refugees and immigrants in their "home region". Reports received at the end of January spoke of 630 Italian police, paramilitary, and military personnel stationed in Albania to aid in stemming the flow of illegal refugees. Moreover, according to Italian Defence Minister Carlo Scognamiglio, Italy stands ready to double that number.

Basically, these forces are being used in support of Albanian efforts to stem the operations of the mafia rings smuggling people to Italy. These smuggling groups appear both aggressive and powerful. Evidence of this was provided in a late January incident involving smuggling migrants from Vlore, Albania.

Reports indicate that Italian police were training their Vlore counterparts in how to address smuggling. As part of their operations, the local police then raided a smuggling gang's operation in the area and impounded their six boats. That was on a Friday. The next day, Saturday, gang members blockaded the coast road, then attacked and took the local police chief hostage when he went to negotiate with them; then they effectively traded him for the return of their boats. On early Sunday morning, about 30 Albanians and 95 Kosovars were picked up on the beaches of the Puglia Coast in Southern Italy.

It was this series of events which then spawned calls for the doubling of Italy's Albanian presence, as well as measures to help build a more credible deterrent capability into the Albanian police force. Italian rightist groups voiced outrage, and the National Alliance suggested Italy blockade the Otranto Channel.


200,000 march in support of immigrants in Milan

On the upside, February 13th saw a 200,000 person demonstration in Milan in support of immigrants. The event was sponsored by the national leadership of the Confederation of Labour Unions, and was billed as a demonstration of "Solidarity and Security" for all good people. The Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, in a show of solidarity, received the demonstration's leadership, and emphasized the importance of helping people to appreciate the need for mutual consideration and support in overcoming the challenges posed by immigration.

The event was held in response to a reported racist and nationalist movement which was effectively mounting a "xenophobic" campaign in response to a perceived immigrant-related crime problem. Responding to these circumstances, the Solidarity and Support Day highlighted the economic value of immigrants to their communities, and called upon the government to help foster workable solutions to improve immigrant integration. An appeal was also made to the government not to use church efforts as an alternative for much needed, and absent, government support network for new arrivals.


Greek heavy-handedness toward refugees

However, just over the border in Greece, conditions appear markedly worse, with reports indicating that police have even fired machine guns at a fleeing group of Kurdish refugees. According to Amnesty International (AI), this posture is part of a pattern by the Greek authorities. AI cites other incidents involving Kurds to highlight their contention of Greek authorities' bias against asylum seekers. In one instance, 167 Kurds arriving in Iraklion (Crete) to seek asylum had their asylum applications initially refused by local police, who only relented after "strong pressure" by local authorities, the UNHCR, and AI.

Greek authorities' increasing heavy-handedness toward refugees, many of whom are on their way to Northern European destinations could be seen as a result of mounting pressure on the country by other EU-Member States to more effectively prevent the transit of "undesirable" migrants.

Presently, the Greek route is said to be one of two originating in Istanbul, with this path leading to EU transit points in the Balkans via Greece, and then over the mountains into neighbouring Macedonia. The other, the "Istanbul Express", heads to Germany via Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.

According to Turkish news reports, over 14,000 illegal immigrants, from 43 countries, were captured in Turkey's Edirne province over the past year. Given the desires of so many to enter the EU, one can only speculate on what the next millennium will bring.


Sources: Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 10.2.99; Anatolia, 25.1.99; Migration News Sheet, December 1998; Economist, 20.2.99; XINHUA, 27.1.99; Reuters, 23.1.99, 24.1.99, 27.1.99 , ZENIT News Agency, 15.2.99.