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EU fails to take a stand

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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 is enormous.

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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 matter.

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.

- Third World Network Features

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