Italy asks Gaddafi to halt tide of migrants

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Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, flies to meet Colonel Gaddafi in Libya tomorrow, with the hope that the dictator will do something to control the flow of would-be immigrants setting sail from Libya. It will be the third meeting between the leaders of Italy and its former colonial possession in less than two years.

Many hundreds of economic migrants, who pay a fortune to brokers in Libya, wash up on Italy's shores every year, and many dozens drown or die of thirst or exposure in the attempt.

Colonel Gaddafi has already agreed in principle to joint Italian-Libyan navy patrols to clamp down on the trade. But negotiations to bring them about are mired in bureaucracy.

Mr Berlusconi has no agenda for his "informal dinner" with the Colonel, one of the few world leaders even more mercurial and unpredictable than Mr Berlusconi himself. But the Italian side is hoping for practical steps, building on the agreement fine-tuned two weeks ago in Tripoli by Alessandro Pansa, Italy's director- general for immigration.

"It can be the occasion for taking things forward," one of Mr Berlusconi's aides said yesterday. "There is huge pressure from illegal immigration on Libya as well." Many thousands of sub-Saharan Africans pass through Libya every year in the hope of getting a passage to Europe from the Libyan coast.

By contrast, Spain signalled at the weekend that it would offer an amnesty to immigrants, giving legal recognition to those already in the country and not turning back boats heading for the Spanish coast.

While Mr Berlusconi is struggling to stop one source of immigrants, thereby pleasing his hardline coalition partners, members of the post-fascist National Alliance and the xenophobic Northern League, which forced a tough anti-immigration law on to the statute book two years ago, others in his government are eager to let in more. One of them is Giuseppe Pisanu, the Interior Minister, who meets Mr Berlusconi today in Sardinia. Mr Pisanu, not generally regarded as a liberal, prompted a row within the government over the weekend by demanding that the anti-immigration law be modified. "Nobody ever thought the law on immigration would be definitive," he said.

Proposing an increase in the quotas for legal immigrants, he pointed out that low-paid immigrants from beyond the European Union have become an essential part of the Italian economy. "If it wasn't for immigrants," he pointed out, "we couldn't pick apples in Trentino, tomatoes in Campania, or bring in the grape harvest. Neither could we milk a single fanatical Northern League cow." About 900,000 immigrants work in Italian agriculture.

Another senior minister, Rocco Buttiglione, shortly to quit as Minister for Europe to become the EU commissioner for internal affairs, recently made the radical proposal that refugee status could be given not only to those fleeing political persecution but also hunger.

The reformists are backed by employers' organisations crying out for cheap labour but unable to import any more because the quotas mandated by the immigration law were all used up months ago.

At the weekend, Mr Buttiglione met Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, president of Confindustria, the Italian equivalent to Britain's CBI, and also chairman of Fiat, who spoke of immigration as "a great opportunity". Regional industrial organisations added their voices to the chorus. In Veneto, which already has a large population of working immigrants, Giampaolo Pedroni, the vice-director of the Regional Industrial Association, said: "For 2004 we have requests for a total of 16,000 'entrants' [immigrants], but they've only given us 2,200."

Yet the hard right in Mr Berlusconi's government remains adamant. Roberto Calderoli, the Minister for Reforms, recently became the second Northern League minister to demand the use of force to drive away illegal immigrants arriving by boat. He demanded greater efforts "to hunt down illegal immigrants [including those] who snatch bags and kill people."

Mr Berlusconi will be hoping that Colonel Gaddafi comes to his aid with practical steps to clamp down on illegal immigrants - leaving him free to open a new door to admit more of them legally.