Minister calls for immigration curbs

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The Independent Online

Italy's new interior minister wants to reimpose border controls for travellers from Europe's passport-free Schengen zone as part of security measures to crack down on crime and immigration.

The package drawn up by Roberto Maroni, a member of the anti-immigration Northern League, would make illegal immigration a crime punishable by up to four years' imprisonment, according to details published by newspapers yesterday.

The package will be presented at a cabinet meeting this week. It is expected to be one of the first decrees approved by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's new conservative government, which was sworn in on Thursday.

One of the most controversial measures favoured by Maroni is negotiating a suspension of Italy's obligations under the European Union's Schengen scheme. The accord, between 24 of the 27 member states, lets travellers cross national boundaries without checks.

The move is aimed mainly against Romanian immigrants and eastern European Roma people, who have been blamed for crimes in Italy.

Romania, which joined the European Union last year, is not part of the Schengen scheme. Italian authorities say its nationals enter Italy without checks through neighbouring countries covered by the agreement.

The scheme allows for the suspension of the passport-free rules only for reasons of public order or national security. Some member states have reimposed border controls for limited periods in the past for security reasons at international summits or high-profile public events.

Crime and immigration were an important issue in the campaign for last month's parliamentary election, which Berlusconi overwhelmingly won.

Berlusconi's new foreign minister, Franco Frattini, has said Italy should create a minimum income requirement for immigrants, including those from other European Union countries.

The new mayor of Rome from the right-wing National Alliance party, part of Berlusconi's People of Freedom coalition, has pledged to expel 20,000 immigrant criminals and knock down illegal camps put up by mostly by Roma from Romania.

More than 500,000 Romanians are estimated to live in Italy, a number that Rome says has risen dramatically in the past year.