Just a few days before it took over the EU presidency, the Italian government had a difficult situation on its hands. The concentrated arrival in Sicily of migrants heading north from Africa in the first three weeks of June, with at least 26 dead and over 250 missing in international waters in the same period, cut to the heart of the immigration debate, and neither the public nor the authorities could bury their heads in the sand.

At the same time, minister for reform and leader of the right-wing Lega Nord Umberto Bossi was spoiling for a fight, and the wave of new migration was just the ammunition he needed. One of Italys most vocal opponents of immigration, he called for the immediate application of the Bossi-Fini immigration law (drawn up by him together with the leader of Alleanza Nazionale Gianfranco Fini), which was approved by parliament last summer, but is still not fully operative.

The problem is this: how to respond to the pressure of migration from developing countries in a way that meets humanitarian obligations and recognises the dramatic situations of poverty, war and persecution that are often at its roots, while at the same time responding to pressures to stop illegal entry into Italy. Strong Catholic and trades union lobbies in Italy have ensured that traditionally the country has had a policy of openness towards immigrants. However, in recent years the government has been under increasing pressure from within the country and also from Europe to tighten up its borders. When it finally comes into effect, the new Bossi-Fini law will take the country even further in this direction.

The law foresees a crackdown on illegal entry, with new reception and detention centres and more rigid procedures for asylum seekers (see box). At the same time, legal migrants will be subject to stricter entry requirements.

The Italian authorities are already working hard to counter illegal immigration. According to figures published by Caritas in its 2002 report on immigration, in 2001 almost 75,500 illegal migrants were either rejected at the frontier or expelled, while in the Italian daily La Repubblica in late June, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was reported to have said that in 2002 this figure came to 85,000. However, for Bossi this was not enough, and in mid-June he threatened to upset the government coalition unless more concrete action was taken to stop the flow of people.

Contrary to popular perception, this year the number of migrants arriving illegally by boat in southern Italy has actually dropped. Despite concern that conflict in Iraq would generate a flow of migrants from that area, the latest arrivals, mostly men, are predominately from sub-Saharan Africa.

With its long coastline and mountainous frontiers, as well as comparatively lenient legislation, Italy has always been considered one of the easiest routes into Europe. For most migrants it is simply the first port of call on the way to northern Europe, to join friends or family in Germany, France or Britain for example. Italy has a small stable immigrant population compared to these countries, and while the recent sanatoria (amnesty) for illegal migrant workers has inflated the figures, it is still below the European average. However, in spite of the European dimension to immigration here, in the past Italy has had to take responsibility for managing its borders on its own.

The recent arrivals in Sicily have served to put immigration back on the European agenda. At the meeting of European heads of state and government in Thessaloniki, Greece, in the third week of June, the need for a united approach to immigration was underlined.

However, there is a general consensus that the flow of migrants needs to be stopped at source. Bilateral accords with Slovenia, Albania, Tunisia and Morocco among others have seen a fall in migration to Italy from these countries. Under the agreements, governments are expected to collaborate in reducing illegal people-trafficking in exchange for legal entry quotas and money for development.

Now it would seem that much of the traffic has shifted to Libya. Most (but not all) of the boats that set sail for Italian shores in June are reported to have left from this north African country, whose long desert borders to the south are difficult to patrol. Negotiations are underway with the Gheddafi regime to address the problem, but strained international relations and sanctions against Tripoli could make this difficult.

On a domestic level, confusion reigns. The regulations needed to enforce the Bossi-Fini law were approved by the council of ministers at the end of June but they must still go through various levels of bureaucracy before they can take effect. According to the legislative office of the Presidenza del Consiglio, this process is unlikely to be completed much before September.

Seeking asylum in Italy

Early last month a group of 34 Turkish Kurds embarked on a hunger strike in Rome in protest at the rejection of their application for asylum by the Italian government. The Kurds, based outside the United Nations offices in Piazza S. Marco off Piazza Venezia, explained that they had applied for refugee status when they arrived in Italy two years previously but that they had been made to wait 18 months for a hearing. Now they were supposed to leave the country. Asked whether they had lodged an appeal, one hunger-striker replied: This is our appeal. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees eventually took up their case with the Italian authorities, and on 30 June all 34 were granted asylum.

Applications for asylum are examined by a central commission, often after many months. Meanwhile asylum seekers are entitled to a small allowance for the first 45 days but they are not permitted to work. The majority of applications are refused. According to the central commission, last year 1,270 applicants were granted asylum out of 16,970 cases examined (including some pending from the previous year). 730 were given temporary protection for humanitarian reasons and 14,970 were turned away. Under the Bossi-Fini law the examination of asylum applications will be decentralised in order to speed up the process, with greater emphasis on the expulsion of failed applicants.

According to figures released by the UNHCR on the occasion of world refugee day on 20 June, over 20 million people worldwide are under UNHCR protection as a result of war or persecution. According to the interior ministry last year Italy received 9,608 applications for asylum, compared with over 110,000 in Britain.

Picture: Kurdish asylum seekers on hunger strike in Piazza Venezia won their case and have been allowed to stay.