EU fails to take a stand
By staying silent, the European
Commission (EC) is consenting to Italy’s harsh new immigration
legislation. Anyone caught without valid residency documents will have
to pay fines of up to € 10,000. Landlords will face prison terms of up
to three years if they rent to persons without residency permit. All
government staff are ordered to report illegal immigrants to the police.
What is happening in Italy highlights a pan-European failure. There is
no coherent policy on migration, and the gap between rhetoric and action
Many Italians who migrated to Argentina in the 19th century did not
bring along money. Only very few were highly qualified. They relied on
their ability to work, and they left a lasting mark on the South
American country. What was taken for granted in the past - that those
who see no future at home go in search of a new homeland - is considered
criminal in Italy today.
The new rules introduced by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi are
excessively severe. They are part of a new “security law”, which has met
with harsh criticism from refugee organisations and the United Nations.
Furthermore, Italy started picking up refugees at sea and sending them
to Libya in March.
Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, says such
action is illegal. Italian officials, who were involved, spoke in shame
of “inhumane measures”. Civil-society organisations, the Council of
Europe and the Vatican have protested. Unimpressed, Berlusconi likened
Italy’s government-run refugee camps to Nazi concentration camps,
arguing that deportation to Libya was comparatively comfortable.
And what is the EU’s reaction? Silence. Yes, the European Parliament
has just approved new asylum rules, but the EU member states where
non-Europeans first arrive are in charge of all procedures. There has
been talk about supporting those member states that face a particularly
large influx of refugees, but no action. Immigrants, both invited and
uninvited, keep arriving in Europe.
Action is needed. That view is held in particular by those countries
that are most affected. In that sense, Italy’s rigorous new legislation
results from the EU’s failure to act. The EU is shying from
responsibility, leaving it to member countries to handle a difficult
The European Commission’s silence on Italian policy amounts to tacit
approval. Apparently, the EC is grateful that its Roman enfant terrible
is addressing a challenge it does not wish to rise to itself.
As far as migration is at stake, the EU’s attitude is just as
hypocritical as Italy’s. Ahead of the elections to the European
Parliament, right-wing politicians are fond of tough anti-immigration
rhetoric. Harsh words, however, go along with soft action. Slogans
stigmatise people as illegal whose work is actually in demand.
In Italy, this contradiction has become evident in a series of “regularisations”.
In the past 20 years, there were five such amnesty programs, granting
residency permits to foreigners living in the country without documents.
This is how more than half of the immigrants living legally in Italy
today obtained their status, according to researchers of the Hamburg
Institute of International Economics (HWWI). Berlusconi’s personal
approach to the rule of law, by the way, is marked by similar “regularisation”.
Various criminal proceedings that had been started against him were
discontinued due to dubious law reforms enacted on his watch.
Immigration is a complex and emotive topic that deserves serious
treatment in Europe. As all scholars agree, the continent’s societies
are ageing and need immigrants. It is necessary to engage in a
substantial, pan-European debate.
Just like the Italian immigrants to Argentina in the 19th century,
the newcomers in Europe have the potential to benefit society. Their
willingness to work and to take risks is extraordinary, and they can
certainly contribute to generating wealth and creating new jobs.
Everyone would benefit - the immigrants, their families in their old
homeland and the societies in their new homeland. Instead of rising to
their policy duties, politicians are only fanning fear of change.
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