Extremely positive. This is how Franco Pittau, coordinator of the annual statistical report on immigration to Italy published by Caritas di Roma, judges the proposal launched by deputy premier and leader of the right-wing party Alleanza Nazionale (AN) Gianfranco Fini to extend the vote in local elections to immigrants. Specifically, the project contemplates allowing non-EU immigrants to participate in city and local council polls and to stand for election after six years legal residence in Italy, providing they have a renewable permit of stay, are financially self-sufficient and don't have a criminal record. Socially and culturally, the implications of such a step are huge, continues Pittau. For people to live together in harmony certain adhesives are required. The vote is one of those adhesives.

The idea, announced in early October and presented as a bill to parliament, took everyone by surprise and the government immediately fell into disarray. Fini, after all, gave his name to the most recent, tighter immigration legislation, along with his government partner and leader of the far-right Lega Nord, Umberto Bossi. Exponents of the Unione Democratica Cristiani (UDC) expressed their support, while prime minister Silvio Berlusconi of the centre-right Forza Italia party was cautious and Bossi predictably voiced his dissent. Even Finis own party was divided in its response. The centre-left opposition also struggled to find a united voice before they backed the initiative.

There has been much speculation concerning the possible motives behind the proposal. It has been generally interpreted as part of an attempt by Fini to strengthen his position and that of his party both at home and in Europe in view of a possible cabinet reshuffle in the new year and the European elections next June. In particular, it marks another step in the process of distancing AN from its neo-fascist roots in order to gain consensus among the Italian and European centre and centre-right.

Whatever the reasons, the initiative has had the effect of redefining the immigration debate in Italy which until now has been seen essentially as a question of humanitarian assistance and of law and order in terms of rights and responsibilities. In reality under the new law immigrants would still not have the same voting rights as EU citizens, who are entitled to participate in local elections from the moment they take up residence, providing they have a valid permit of stay (see box). However, it would be an important intermediate step before obtaining full citizenship rights, which are awarded after a minimum of ten years. According to a survey conducted by the Public Opinion Study Institute (ISPO) and published by leading Italian daily Corriere della Sera in October, 71 per cent of Italians are in favour of the proposal, while 50 per cent say immigrants should be entitled to vote in regional and general elections as well.

The bill now has to go through parliament, which could take many months if not years. Since it implies a constitutional amendment it must go through both houses (chamber and senate) twice with a six-month interval before it can become law. At the end of October the bill had still not been inserted into the parliamentary calendar.

In the meantime, the process of regularising illegal migrant workers in Italy under the most recent sanatoria is drawing to a close. The latest interior ministry figures, dating from late October, put the number of processed applications at 550,000, or 86 per cent of the total. Of these, only a very small number have been rejected. An interior ministry spokesperson was confident that the 31 December deadline for processing all the requests would be respected.

Once the sanatoria has been completed the number of legal immigrants in Italy will be 2.5 million, or roughly 4.2 per cent of the population, according to the 2003 Caritas statistical report, which was presented at the end of October. Italy now has about the same percentage of immigrants as the United Kingdom had in 2000 (4.1 per cent of the population), but is still behind Germany (8.9 per cent) and France (5.6 per cent).

The question now is: What next? The sanatoria has been extremely efficient but this is not the way to solve the problem of illegal immigration, says Pittau. The number of people wanting to immigrate to Italy is increasing. It is not a question of drawing up bilateral accords. The phenomenon requires a rethinking of the quota system as well as the reintroduction of entry permits for immigrants looking for work. (Under current immigration law, migrant workers are only admitted to Italy providing they have already

managed to secure a

job contract.)

The reintroduction of entry permits might also reduce the tragic loss of life during attempts to enter Italy illegally over land or by sea. While the number of people arriving in Italy illegally by sea has decreased in recent years, the number of deaths during the crossing from cold, hunger and thirst or by drowning is on the rise according to a recent study conducted by the Rome-based human rights association A Buon Diritto. The authors explain this partly by the fact that ever smaller and less seaworthy vessels are being used in the attempt to avoid capture by patrols. In three days in October, 20 men, women and children died during three separate attempts to cross the channel separating North Africa from Sicily, while at least 28 people - and probably tens more, according to survivors reports - are missing presumed dead. Most of the victims like the 42 survivors were fleeing poverty and conflict in the Horn of Africa, particularly Somalia.

Pittau says the recent deaths are a sign of what is to come. There can be no doubt that patrols of the waters and bilateral agreements are required. But these do not address the problem of the suffering that is at the root of this migration. The solution? To adopt a policy in Italy that is clear and open to migration on the one hand and to sow seeds of hope in the countries of origin on the other.

Voting and citizenship rights

EU citizens legally resident in Italy can automatically vote in city and local council elections providing they are registered with their local electoral office. They are not entitled to vote in provincial, regional and general elections (voting rights in these elections are obtained with citizenship). Citizens of EU-member countries can apply for Italian citizenship after four years legal residence in Italy.

Immigrants from non-EU countries must instead wait ten years to apply for citizenship; until then, they have no entitlement to vote in any elections. However, a number of city councils have altered their statutes to give immigrants who are resident on their territory some form of representation, and a few provincial and regional governments are thinking of doing the same. Most recently, Rome city authorities gave their approval to the election by immigrants of four non-voting councillors to sit on the city council, and one to represent them on each of the local councils, or municipi. The ballot is scheduled for late February or early March.