Berlusconi says 600,000 migrants are 'ready' to commit crime in Italy

Former prime minister enters debate over immigration with volatile statement after shootings at weekend

FILE - In this  Jan. 11, 2018 file photo Italian former Prime Minister and Forza Italia (Go Italy) party leader, Silvio Berlusconi, is backdropped by The League party leader Matteo Salvini during the recording of the Italian state television RAI, Porta a Porta (Door To Door) talk show in Rome. Former Premier Silvio Berlusconi is contending that 600,000 migrants in Italy are “ready” to commit crimes, but his foes are blaming his policies when he governed Italy for the migrant issues dominating Italy’s election campaign and forming the backdrop for an anti-migrant drive-by shooting in an Italian town. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
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Former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi claimed on Monday that 600,000 migrants who arrived illegally in Italy are “ready” to commit crimes, and he vowed they would be sent back to their homelands if an election next month propels his centre-right party into government.

In an explosive contribution to the national debate after the shooting of a number of African migrants at the weekend by a far-right activist, Mr Berlusconi poured petrol on the flames by claiming that immigrants lived "hand to mouth or from crime" and that they were responsible for most bank robberies, according to The Times.

The leaders of the main rival parties in the March 4 parliamentary election retorted on Monday that some policies from Mr Berlusconi’s three stints in office helped create the conditions that brought so many newcomers to Italy.

Italy’s experience with the hundreds of thousands of people who arrived after being rescued from smugglers’ boats in the Mediterranean Sea in the last few years has dominated much of the pre-election campaigning.

But the migrant issue took on even more energy on Saturday, when an Italian gunman allegedly shot and wounded six Africans from his car in the central Italian town of Macerata. Police have described the suspect as a far-right extremist with neo-Nazi sympathies.

The drive-by attack followed the arrest of a Nigerian man in the slaying of an 18-year-old Italian woman shortly after walking away from a drug rehabilitation centre in the area.

In an interview Sunday with TG5, a news prohramme that is part of his media empire, Mr Berlusconi cited the large number of rescued migrants who have landed in Italy since 2013, when the current centre-left government led by the Democratic Party came to power.

“The result is that today we have almost 630,000 immigrants, of which only 30,000 have the right to stay here because they are refugees,” he said. “Another 600,000 are tantamount to a social bomb ready to explode, because they live by the expedient of committing crimes.”

The former prime minister cannot run for office due to a tax fraud conviction. But Mr Berlusconi is campaigning so his Forza Italia party, in alliance with a right-wing anti-migrant party and a smaller party with neo-fascist roots, can gain enough seats in parliament to form a coalition government.

Democratic Party leader Matteo Renzi, also a former premier, blamed part of the problem on his predecessor.

"If in Italy migrants are arriving, it's because someone made war in Libya, and the premier was Berlusconi," Mr Renzi said in a reference to Nato's 2011 air strike campaign against Mummar Qaddafi's regime.

After his ouster, chaos took hold in the north African nation, and human traffickers resumed the lucrative business of launching unseaworthy boats crowded with people wanting to make it to Europe.

Also seizing on the Libya example on Monday was Luigi Di Maio, who is running for what the populist 5-Star Movement hopes will be its first premiership. The 5-Stars have themselves taken a hard line on immigration.

“Berlusconi created the social bomb of immigration by the bombing of Libya,” Mr Di Maio said.

“I ask Italians to check their memory about what this 81-year-old gentleman did when he was in government,” he said.

Last week, the first candidate Mr Di Maio presented on his movement's ticket for parliament was a retired admiral who boasted he took part in the Nato campaign against Libya. The admiral was removed as a candidate, officially for other reasons.