Italy, a peninsula jutting out into the Mediterranean Sea, has long been a natural destination for migrants hoping to make it to Europe from Africa and the Middle East. But under Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Italy has enacted some of the toughest immigration laws on the continent. Henry Ridgwell traveled to Florence to meet some of the immigrants who are experiencing the crackdown first hand, and some of the politicians who say tough laws are long overdue.
Among the thousands of tourists, it's easy to spot the city's less affluent foreigners - migrants from across Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia who've come for a better life. But Italy's immigration laws - the strictest in Europe - are making life tough for the less welcome.
Many of them gather each day at this soup kitchen run by the Catholic charity Caritas. Outside, VOA spoke to a man named Marco who came here from Romania.
"Everything is much more difficult now, it's horrible," he said. "It's worse with the economic crisis too. Some of the older police treat us very badly."
Laws passed last year mean illegal immigrants can be fined $14,000 and jailed for up to six months. Those who offer them lodging can be sent to jail for three years. Even the Vatican has criticized the measures.
"From when Prime Minister Berlusconi got into power, Italy changed. It's become a country afraid of enemies. The enemy who is the black man on the street. The enemy is the person who speaks differently; who is a different color, the enemy is a poor person - pure and simple," said Mesquita Mattias came here from Angola 10 years ago.
The skyline of Florence is a dazzling array of domes and spires, an open air museum of Renaissance Christianity. The local Muslim population is now campaigning for a new mosque that would be built in the same style as the city's classic architecture. Despite some support from local Catholic groups, there is vocal opposition, notably from the far right Northern League. It says the project is a "destabilizing force."
The Northern League now wields considerable power in Mr. Berlusconi's coalition government. The party's regional president is Antonio Gambetta Vianna.
"The problem is, when the Italians went to America in the 1920s and 1930s, they were subjected to health checks and background checks before they were allowed in. There's no such thing in Italy. People come over, they're here, they're illegal immigrants and there's no process," said Vianna.
Back at the soup kitchen, they're preparing for another full house, serving lunch to immigrants. The director of the charity, Alessandro Martini, says Italy should not have to deal with the problem alone.
"We have globalized the economies, we have globalized communication, we have globalized the Internet," said Martini. "Now it's time for us to globalize integration and immigration. It's time to globalize, in a humane way, the way we treat and welcome foreigners."
A common policy on immigration is still a way off. While European governments agree that the flow of migrants needs to be stemmed, few - it seems - are willing to share the burden of looking after those who have already arrived.