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EU: Italy Targets Romanian Immigrants With Plan To Suspend Schengen

Romanian Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu is warning of rising xenophobia in Italy (file photo) (epa) Italy’s new right-wing government has unveiled plans to make illegal immigration a crime punishable by up to four years in jail. According to media reports, the plans could also lead to reimposing border controls on travelers from the passport-free Schengen zone.

What explains the measures?

Partly, it’s because Italians for years have felt frustrated by an ever-rising tide of illegal immigrants who arrive by sea, air, and land. The latest figures, from 2006, indicate that there were nearly 4 million foreign residents in Italy, according to ISTAT, Italy’s state statistical institute. And press reports say more and more illegal immigrants have arrived in Italy since the European Union expanded in 2007 to include Bulgaria and Romania.

The plan's main target is Romania. It's not part of the Schengen scheme, but Italian officials say many Romanians travel to Italy through other countries that are part of the zone.

There's also been a steady trickle of crimes linked to Romanians and Roma from Romania, which have been played up in the Italian press. Italian interior statistics from 2006 show that, among foreigners involved in crime in Italy, Romanians ranked first in arrests for homicide, sexual violence, and robberies in homes.

Gesture Wasn't Enough

Italy’s previous center-left government moved in November to begin deporting Romanians with criminal records. The gesture wasn’t enough for Italian voters, however. Last month, they handed a big majority to center-right parties led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has returned to that job. Among his main coalition partners is the anti-immigrant Northern League, which seeks wide autonomy for Italy’s wealthy northern regions and from which the new interior minister, Roberto Maroni, hails.

Berlusconi’s new government is set to vote next week on Maroni’s draft measures to crack down on illegal immigration.

The move has sparked concern in Bucharest, with Romanian Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu warning of rising xenophobia in Italy and urging Rome not to restrict the freedom of movement in Europe.

"The right to free circulation in Europe is one of the main pillars of European society, and we cannot agree with breaking this right," Tariceanu said. "We understand that a firm stand from the authorities is necessary, but we cannot accept the restriction of fundamental rights which are, if you want, the values on which the European project was built.”

Tariceanu said he would send Interior Minister Cristian David to Rome to discuss the issue. He also said the Romanian cabinet could provide Italy with a team of prosecutors and police officers to support efforts by the Italian authorities to combat crime.

Business Group Voicing Concern

Romania is not the only party voicing concern. Unimpresa, an association of Italian businesspeople, has complained loudly that the new measures could damage relations with Bucharest, with which Rome has 12 billion euros of annual trade. Italian companies also employ some 800,000 people in Romania, according to Unimpresa President Stefano Albarosa.

In an interview in Rome’s “La Repubblica” daily, Albarosa said the Italian media and politicians had unfairly painted all Romanians as criminals. Human-rights activists have also protested the plans, as has Cardinal Renato Martino, who heads the Vatican department that formulates refugee policy. He says Italy should not "demonize a population, as is being done with Romanians."

In the latest ISTAT statistics from 2006, the vast majority of rapes or attempted rapes in Italy were committed by a family member, friend, husband, boyfriend, neighbor, or acquaintance. Only 3.4 percent were committed by an “unknown person,” such as, possibly, a foreigner.

With wire service reports