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Italy's Meloni blames organised crime for 'alarming' visa fraud

By Angelo Amante

ROME (Reuters) – Criminal gangs are exploiting loopholes in Italy's visa system for foreign workers to smuggle in illegal immigrants. The anti-mafia prosecutor's office should investigate the problem, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni told her cabinet on Tuesday.

As part of its tough stance on immigration policy, Meloni's right-wing government has passed a series of measures to curb immigration, while also expanding legal immigration channels in response to growing labor shortages.

Last year, Italy increased quotas for work visas for non-EU citizens to a total of 452,000 for the 2023-2025 period, an increase of almost 150 percent over the previous three years. In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, Italy issued only 30,850 visas.

Meloni said visa monitoring had revealed “alarming” data showing that some regions – particularly the southern region of Campania – had received a disproportionately high number of job applications compared to the number of potential employers.

“Given the exorbitant number of applications, only a very small percentage of foreigners who have received a work visa have actually signed a work contract – less than three percent in Campania,” Meloni said in a speech forwarded by her office.

This is evidence that “organized criminal gangs” have infiltrated the processing of visa applications for migrants who have no right to enter Italy. In return, they received payments of around 15,000 euros (16,300 dollars).

Meloni said she had alerted the national anti-mafia prosecutor's office and promised to adopt new measures to curb the practice after the Group of Seven (G7) summit in Italy on June 13-15.

Ero Straniero, a campaign group that advocates for a more liberal immigration policy, also said last week that the visa system was vulnerable to fraud and blamed bureaucracy.

“In 2023, there were six times more work visas than the quotas set by the government, and only 23.52% of them were converted into residence permits and stable, regular employment,” Ero Straniero said in a statement.

Data from the Interior Ministry show that the number of irregular migrants reaching Italy by sea in 2024 has more than halved compared to the same period last year, to 21,574 people.

(Reporting by Angelo Amante, editing by Alvise Armellini and Ros Russell)