Effort to Criminalize Undocumented Migration Comes as Hostility to Immigrants Rises
June 22, 2009
This bill only encourages intolerance, and worse, against people whose lives are tough enough already.
Judith Sunderland, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch

(Milan) - The Italian Senate should reject legislative proposals that would impose criminal penalties on undocumented migrants and provide a national framework for vigilante groups, Human Rights Watch said today.  The senate is expected to vote on the legislation (known as the "security package") this week.

"Treating migrants as criminals won't solve Italy's immigration challenges," said Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. "This bill only encourages intolerance, and worse, against people whose lives are tough enough already."

The bill comes in the climate of hostility toward immigrants, spurred on by statements from senior government figures. The Berlusconi government is taking an increasingly hard line against irregular migrants and asylum seekers.  

The bill, approved by the lower house of deputies in mid-May, makes entering and remaining in Italy without a permit a crime punishable by a fine of up to €10,000. Doctors' unions and rights groups have expressed concern that the measure could compel public health and education officials to report undocumented migrants seeking medical care and other services, since the criminal code requires public officials to report criminal conduct.  Although the government dropped an earlier proposal to make this requirement explicit, as currently written, the bill could have the same result.

The law would also increase from two months to six the maximum time that authorities are allowed to detain migrants and asylum seekers for administrative purposes. 

One of the most potentially dangerous aspects of the bill is a provision for a national framework for "citizens' groups" to patrol the streets to help law-enforcement authorities to combat crime. The groups would not be armed or have arrest powers, but preference for membership would go to retired police and military personnel. The controversial provision was initially approved in a February 2009 emergency decree, and subsequently dropped in April when the decree was converted into law.

Unauthorized vigilante groups already operate in some municipalities, especially in northern Italy, where the anti-immigrant party Lega Nord (Northern League) has broad support. Some cities, including Milan, have authorized groups.

The impetus for the creation of these groups was several highly publicized rapes allegedly committed by immigrants in Rome, Milan, and Bologna in 2008 and 2009. The incidents prompted anti-immigrant mob violence, primarily against Romanians and Roma.

"Legalizing vigilante groups at a time of rising intolerance is a recipe for disaster," said Sunderland. "If these groups use violence against migrants, the state will be directly responsible."

Prime Minister Berlusconi recently repeated his opposition to the idea of Italy as a multiethnic nation, and failed to criticize a proposal by a Lega Nord representative in favor of segregated public transportation in Milan for native-born Milanese. The Italian president, Giorgio Napolitano, has expressed his concern over an increase in what he called "xenophobic rhetoric" in public discourse. 

The government recently began to forcibly return boats carrying migrants in international waters back to Libya, without determining whether they needed protection from persecution or abuse, a clear violation of international refugee law. 

Last year, the government modified the criminal code to make undocumented stay an aggravating factor for any crime. As a result, irregular immigrants may be sentenced to up to one-third more prison time than an Italian citizen or legal resident for the same crime. Adopted at a time when political support for criminalizing undocumented entry and stay was uncertain, the measure appeared aimed at punishing individuals for their irregular status.

Discrimination on the basis of immigration status and nationality is prohibited under international law, Human Rights Watch said. This means any difference in treatment on the basis of nationality must be strictly justified as necessary and proportionate to meet a legitimate goal.