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

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni holds final rally for European Parliament Elections in Rome

By Angelo Amante

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

As part of its tough stance on immigration, Meloni's rightist government has passed an array of measures to curb arrivals, but has also expanded legal immigration channels in response to growing labour shortages.

Last year, it raised quotas for work visas for non-EU citizens to a total of 452,000 for the period 2023-2025, an increase of nearly 150% from the previous three years. In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, Italy issued just 30,850 visas.

Meloni said "alarming" data had emerged from monitoring of the visas, showing that some regions - particularly the southern region of Campania - had received a disproportionate number of work applications compared to the number of potential employers.

"In the face of the exorbitant number of applications, only a very small percentage of the foreigners who obtained work visas actually signed a work contract, less than 3% in Campania," Meloni said in a speech forwarded by her office.

She said this was evidence that "organised crime groups" had infiltrated the management of applications to obtain visas for migrants who had no right to enter Italy, in return for payments of around 15,000 euros ($16,300).

Meloni said she alerted the national anti-Mafia prosecutor and vowed to pass new measures to curb the practice after the Group of Seven (G7) leaders' summit in Italy on June 13-15.

Ero Straniero, a campaign group that lobbies for more liberal immigration policies, also said last week the visa system was vulnerable to fraud, blaming red tape.

"In 2023, work visas were six times higher than the quotas set by the government, and only 23.52% have turned into residence permits and stable, regular employment," Ero Straniero said in a statement.

Interior ministry data show the number of irregular migrants reaching Italy by sea has more than halved so far in 2024 compared to the same period last year, to 21,574 people.

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