Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has come under ferocious attack for his alleged relationships with several women, including a teenage girl. These stories are surfacing exactly when one aspect of his policy—the fight against illegal immigration, which was part of the government program endorsed by the majority of voters in the last general election—is starting to gain ground.
“We were of the opinion that it should be absolutely important to counteract the wide-open-doors policy towards illegal immigrants adopted by the previous government,” Berlusconi said (via telephone) to a political rally in Vicenza, La Stampa reported (May 30). “It’s not possible for us to let undocumented people in, those who have neither jobs nor prospects, because this would mean to fuel despair and crime, and foster an unacceptable human trafficking.” Italy is not a racist country, he continued, “but unless we control this phenomenon, sooner or later we’ll have a conflict-laden internal situation that cannot but explode.” Berlusconi reiterated that “utmost firmness against illegal immigrants means siding with the weakest, be they our compatriots or foreigners living here.” Moreover, “we welcome those who are prepared to integrate,” provided they are also prepared “to make our rights and duties their own, whereas we must be absolutely firm towards all the others, also to defend our people that are complaining, and are right in doing so.”
“Twenty percent of illegal immigrants arrive via the sea,” Minister of Interior Roberto Maroni told ANSA (May 31). “The remainder reach Italy through regular channels, which subsequently become irregular.” This would mean that the boats that have been towed back to Libya represent only one fifth of the number of illegal immigrants attempting to enter Italy. (The towing was in compliance with an ad hoc agreement between Libya and Italy. For her part Libya received a large payment, including three fully equipped vessels for joint sea patrols.) The first boat was turned back on May 6, and after only three weeks of implementing this new policy, Mr. Maroni proudly declared to the Italian parliament that “the influx of illegal immigrants to the Sicilian shores has virtually come to nought,” even speaking of an “historical turnaround,” as IlGiornale.it reported (May 29).
Now life on the island of Lampedusa, the main point of arrival for illegal immigrants off the southern Sicilian coast, is slowly returning to normal; the reception center is almost empty, with only 23 people waiting to be granted political-refugee status. The islanders are counting on a decent tourist season, all the more so after Mr. Maroni vowed that the Italian government would “unhesitatingly” pursue its policy of turning back would-be Libyan immigrants.
The media have been quick to stress that the Catholic Church has harshly criticized Berlusconi’s immigration policy. (Of course, this is the same media that has not hesitated to attack the Church’s teachings in general, including Her defense of life.) But to what extent has the Church been critical? Individual prelates, like secretary of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People Msgr. Agostino Marchetto, have scolded the Italian government for its policy, but Corriere della Sera reported on May 9 that such pronouncements have caused “irritation” in the Vatican Secretariat of State, which termed them “personal positions.” In addition, according to a May 14 post on L’Espresso’s religious blog Settimo cielo, Monsignor Marchetto’s comments were allegedly dismissed repeatedly by Vatican authorities as not representative of the Church’s official position on the matter, which was aptly voiced by more senior emissaries of the hierarchy and with no denial on the part of the Holy See.
The president of CEI (Italy’s conference of bishops), Angelo Cardinal Bagnasco, was reported in the May 25 Corriere della Sera as being very careful to strike a balance between the evangelical command of acceptance and the civic demand for the Italian government to uphold the law, which is coming from the Church’s grassroots faithful. In a nutshell, these two “fall away or stand together,” the senior prelate pronounced. Bagnasco was restating the position already voiced in the May 12 Avvenire, the CEI mouthpiece, by CEI secretary general Msgr. Mariano Crociata, for whom the issue must be seen in the context of a “rigorous respect of legality, a necessary guarantee for integration.”
Critics of Berlusconi’s immigration policy include not only his political opposition but a number of international agencies and institutions, including the United Nations, the European Union, and several humanitarian organizations, especially those linked to the Catholic Church. These critics decry the alleged infringement of immigrants’ human rights by denying them the opportunity to obtain refugee status, and they accuse Italian authorities of implementing anti-immigration policies that are fundamentally “anti-humanitarian.”
Berlusconi has forcefully rebutted these criticisms. “There is nothing non-humanitarian in it,” he told ANSA (May 28):
Extremely precarious boats are pinpointed, the illegal immigrants are given something to eat and they are taken back to Libya . . . We will no longer tolerate this immigration and we are prepared to accept into Italy those who have jobs and not those who are forced to resort to crime to live.
Criticism from the European Union is somewhat hypocritical, since, as Berlusconi told ANSA (May 14), the Italian policy “is in line with European Union directives,” including the 2008 European Pact on Immigration and Asylum. Berlusconi is convinced that the majority of Italians support his new immigration policies, which treat illegal immigration as a crime and send migrants back to their original points of departure.
“It’s a mistake to undervalue the alarm signs that have been registered here and there in our country,” Cardinal Bagnasco said at the start of the 58th CEI general assembly. “Immigration is a chaotic reality: if it isn’t governed, it is suffered.” And this is what Berlusconi appears precisely determined to do, after almost three decades of virtual inaction—or rather, inaction in doing anything serious to counter the phenomenon, but constant action to promote and foster it. The end result was effectively summarized by Berlusconi himself when, at a rally with his ally and Northern League leader Umberto Bossi on the eve of the European elections, he said Milan no longer looked like an Italian city. “As you walk round Milan,” he was quoted in Corriere della Sera (June 5), “the number of non-Italians makes it seem as if you are in an African city, not somewhere in Italy or Europe.” Thus, to remedy the situation, it was necessary to “proceed with the refusal of entry policy.” It does not appear to have been an exaggeration when Berlusconi boasted on the same occasion that, according to the latest survey, his approval rating has grown to 74 percent.
Milan is not an isolated case. Genoa, Turin, Venice, and virtually all of the major Italian cities find themselves in similar situations. In Brescia, for example, immigration is said to have been the main reason many former supporters of the opposition switched sides and threw their support to Berlusconi and his PdL party. “I am sick and tired that my wife is unable to stroll around in the evening and that non-EU immigrants are given a preferential track for state-subsidised housing,” a former left-wing worker told il Sole 24 Ore (May 5). “Here in Brescia there is a curfew, you know.”
The policy affects only 20 percent of immigrants and could be seen as just a first step in the right direction. It is nonetheless a landmark step, since it has demonstrated the foolishness of those who insist that immigration, legal or illegal, simply cannot be stopped, and that we must accept it and try to get the most out of it. The Italian government has shown that these are groundless opinions, so long as the political will exists to take common-sense measures. The mayor of Lampedusa, Bernardino De Rubeis, is reported to have accused Mr. Maroni of implementing the new policy merely for political purposes. “After the European elections, you’ll see that the immigrants will come back,” he told Corriere della Sera (May 25). We shall see.