Italian troops to keep out boat people

The Italian government sent 500 troops to the coast of Puglia in the south-east yesterday in a deliberately visible attempt to crack down on an influx of illegal immigrants from Albania. The troops will join coastguards and police who patrol the coast from the port of Bari down to the bottom of the heel of Italy, on the look-out for small boats making the five- to six-hour crossing of the Adriatic from the Albanian port of Durres.

Operation Salento is the latest indication that immigration is becoming an important political issue, and that Italy is determined to lose its reputation as an easy entry into Western Europe for the dispossessed from the east and south.

The growing influx is causing concern in a country unused to the racial and cultural diversity of France or Britain. Around 8,000 people have been caught trying to enter the country illegally since last October, and at least twice that number are believed to have made it into Italy undetected in the same period.

The army is working with the Albanian authorities, who have promised to check the movements of small boats and patrol their own coastline. Since the weekend, four naval ships have been guarding Durres.

It seems doubtful how long the show of force can go on. The business of transporting Albanians to Italy is lucrative, and nothing short of full naval blockade is likely to deter those determined to make the crossing.

Attitudes within Italy are slowly changing as immigrant numbers increase. In the past, it was possible for the average middle-class Italian not to notice the foreign presence, since the immigrants lived and worked in shacks on the remote outskirts of big towns.

Most are employed in sweatshops or as cheap labour on big fruit farms. But they are coming into the city centres, sometimes to hawk black-market goods; sometimes to wash windscreens and sell cigarette-lighters at traffic junctions.

Public reaction has focused on petty crime, boosting the appeal of the far-right National Alliance. Horror stories abound in the media. This week, police broke up a child-slavery ring in Milan in which boys as young as eight were being used to beg for their families back home. The families received 40 per cent of the takings; middle-men took the rest. The children had to fend for themselves, slept rough and scavenged for food. Twenty-nine were sent back home yesterday, while two of the middlemen were in police custody.

Another dramatic illustration of the plight of the immigrants came from the industrial town of Prato in Tuscany, where a gas explosion destroyed a shack on the site of a disused textiles factory and killed its four Albanian occupants. The immigrants, the shack and the gas point were all illegal - but the local police had turned a blind eye, perhaps because the 200-strong community provides a ready source of cheap labour.