But Italy does now crack down on the many illegals, mostly from Africa, who come to Italy for economic reasons only

Italy’s conservative prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has sought to deflect criticism of Italy’s harsh immigration policies by stressing potential migrants are welcome in his country. In an interview posted to the US television network CNN’s website on Monday, he said immigrants who qualified to come to Italy should be allowed to work and create a better life for themselves and their families.

“We welcome those (immigrants) who have the right to come here. This is what the United States and all normal countries do,” Berlusconi told CNN. “We are absolutely open to those who come to our country with the wish to integrate and to work… we keep an open door to all who are eligible to come to work in Italy or request asylum,” Berlusconi said.

He rebutted criticism directed at his government by the Italian opposition, the United Nations and the Catholic church over its hardline immigration policies that were part of its electoral pledge to clamp down on illegal immigration. These policies have included turning back boatloads of migrants to North Africa before they enter Italian coastal waters, under an accord signed between the Italian and Libyan governments last year.

“Does it seem humane to you to transfer these people to (Italian) holding centres and detain them for months, only to then send them back to where they came from?” he asked rhetorically. “I think it is kinder to return them to the country from which they set sail and hand them over to the United Nations refugee agency which can assess any asylum claims there.”

If illegal immigrants enter Italian waters, however, authorities assess their claims for asylum or protection, and whether they come from situations where they are in danger or face oppression, Berlusconi said. “The Italian model is one that is totally in line with the behaviour of all western states and with European Union directives,” he said. Italy welcomes immigrants, and has always provided them with medical care and schooling for their children, Berluconi said.

He blamed the previous centre-left government for having “spread the word” in North African and Asian countries that Italy’s borders were “open to all”. Italy had to shut its doors “to the great majority of those who are brought here, many of whom are reduced to conditions of slavery by the criminal organisations who profit from them,” Berlusconi concluded.