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Italy Debates New Immigration Law as Illegal Immigration Attempts Soar


The number of illegal immigrants arriving in Italy from African war-ravaged countries like Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia shows no signs of easing despite rough seas and colder temperatures in the Mediterranean. Authorities say the number of arrivals per year has diminished, but they add that the number of people dying during the crossings from Africa has increased. As Italy debates a new immigration law, politicians in the country say Europe needs to speak with one voice. Sabina Castelfranco has a background report for VOA from Rome.

Every day the Italian coast guard, patrolling the waters off the southern coast of Sicily and Calabria, sights a new boat of illegal immigrants. There seems to be no end in sight to the large numbers of Africans fleeing desperate conditions in their own countries.

Despite rougher seas and colder temperatures now that summer has ended, the last few days have seen a constant arrival of boats from the other side of the Mediterranean. Commander Salvatore Cascione, of the Maritime Office in the southern Calabrian town of Porto Palo spoke of the latest arrival Tuesday.

He says there were 223 illegal immigrants, 155 men, 46 women and 22 children. The majority were Eritreans, Somalis and Ethiopians, and there were entire families on boats.

According to the United Nations more than 350,000 Somalis have fled the war-torn capital Mogadishu this year, and many more are hoping to follow suit. Tension along the Eritrean-Ethiopian border has many people there living in a state of fear. Many also lack adequate food supplies. Those conditions are leading many to flee.

With the difficult situations many Africans face at home, officials are not surprised that some are prepared to risk their lives to make the crossing to Europe. According to Italy's interior ministry, the number of arrivals in the first eight months of the year diminished by 2,000. But the number of casualties increased.

So far in 2007, 200 more people have died at sea than in 2006. On Sunday, at least 18 migrants drowned off Calabria when their boat ran aground and split into pieces.

Cascione says conditions at sea have been dreadful. But he adds that over the past month the vessels arriving have been larger, between 20 and 24 meters long while before they were between five and six meters.

Italy, like France and Spain has been trying to find ways to stop the illegal flow. One way is through bilateral accords with countries of origin that allow the repatriation of these immigrants.

But Marcella Lucidi, an interior ministry official responsible for immigration, says this is not always easy.

Lucidi says the most recent arrivals have come from Egyptian ports, and many of the immigrants declared they were Palestinian. She says they do this in order to avoid a readmission agreement with Egypt which allows the repatriation of illegal immigrants coming from that country. Many Palestinians are stateless and therefore those laws might not apply to them.

Lucidi says that until now Italy, France and Spain have sought bilateral accords with African nations, but she insists the attitude needs to change.

She says Europe must speak with one voice. Repatriation and cooperation agreements need to be reached between countries of origin and Europe as a whole.

Italy is currently debating a new immigration law, and Lucidi explained what she believes should happen in the long-term.

She says immigration flows must be defined by a meeting of supply and demand. She also favors training abroad but says there should be forced repatriation of immigrants arriving illegally on Europe's coasts.

It is unclear if Italy's parliament will approve a new immigration law by the end of this year.

The immigration issue is expected to be top priority at the European Union-Africa summit in Lisbon in early December.

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