The 301,230 square kilometers that make up Italy, an area slightly larger than Arizona, encompass the boot-shaped mainland as well as the surrounding waters and islands. The highest point is one of the peaks of Mont Blanc; the lowest is the Mediterranean Sea.
Although Italian is the official language, there are parts of the country where the people predominantly speak German, French or Slovene. Italians are largely Roman Catholic, but there are mature Protestant and Jewish communities as well as a growing Muslim immigrant community.
In Italy, politics and big business have been noted for corrupt dealings, even at the highest levels. In the 1990s, the Clean Hands operation investigated several former prime ministers and thousands of businessmen and politicians.
As Italy is part of the European Union, its currency is the euro. Some of the country's main industries include tourism, machinery, iron and steel, textiles, motor vehicles, clothing, and footwear. Italy exports these items as well as chemicals, food, beverages, tobacco and more. Overall, the Italian economy is on shaky ground. While inflation rises, plans for pension reform and public spending cuts have been unpopular.
The largest of Italy's Pelagie Islands is Lampedusa, long known as a quiet holiday island attracting mostly Italian tourists. Known as the "Pearl of the Mediterranean," it is often compared to a tropical island, with its white sands, picturesque cliffs and rich wildlife. The climate is arid, with no sources of water other than irregular rainfall. The island's main industries are fishing, agriculture and tourism.
Although the island is part of Italy, geographically it is closer to Africa. It is just 93 miles (150 km) from Tunisia and 217 miles (350 km) from Libya. Its unique position, close to Africa but politically part of Europe, has made it a gateway for African immigrants heading to Europe.
Hundreds of thousands from Africa and the Middle East have paid a fee -- generally around 1,000 euros -- and risked their lives to make the dangerous journey to Europe in overcrowded inflatable dinghies. Many enter through Spain, Italy and Greece, continuing a trend that has been going on since the early 1980s.
Africans emigrate in an effort to escape poverty and unemployment, often traveling over land to Tunisia or Libya, then embarking on the boat journey to Europe from there. Boats traveling to Lampedusa can easily become trapped in the marshy bottom of the shallow water or wrecked by the sea's unpredictable weather. While there is no exact count of how many have drowned this way, experts believe that hundreds of people die each year trying to make the journey.
In recent years, the European Union has tightened up controls on illegal immigrants. A conference this summer in Morocco brought together E.U. nations to talk about ways to defeat illegal immigration. One of the group's goals for the future is to help Africa "take care of its own" so that fewer Africans will feel the need to leave and will stop risking their lives on this perilous journey.
There is vast disagreement about how to deal with these immigrants. Amnesty International complains that when migrants arrive in Europe seeking protection or economic independence, Italy deports them to Libya without affording them access to proper asylum procedure.
At present, the Italian coast guard patrols the coastline and usually knows about every boat containing immigrants before it arrives. In good weather, the number of people arriving in the space of a few hours can reach 1,000. These people are sent to a "temporary stay and assistance center" where they receive emergency health care, clothing and food. They may stay in the holding center for one or two days.
Some figures say that as many as 40 percent manage to remain in the country, either by escaping while on the mainland or by obtaining amnesty. But a large percentage of these immigrants are deported back to Libya almost immediately upon arriving. Amnesty International alleges that it is impossible that all of these people have been properly identified before being shipped off.
Furthermore, the holding center has come under attack for several years for lack of transparency in the asylum procedure. Many E.U. officials were disappointed when they were recently allowed to tour the facility since it was empty of detainees at the time.
At least one far-right Italian politician has suggested the Italian navy use cannons to prevent migrants from reaching Italian shores. However, for the most part, members of the European Union want to control, not halt, immigration flow. Many see migrants as essential to Europe's economic well-being. Others worry that once the migrants get into Europe, they won't necessarily have better living conditions to look forward to. Those concerned about immigrants' rights push for a form of social integration that would respect the culture of the immigrants while enhancing their capacity to assimilate into adopted society.
Sources: BBC News, CIA Factbook, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Christian Science Monitor, Reuters, Al-Ahram Weekly, The Boston Globe.
European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE)
The ECRE is an umbrella organization of 80 refugee-assisting agencies in 30 European countries. Its Web site has the latest statistics and reports discussing the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees broken down by country.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
This agency is mandated to coordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. Its Web site includes a report on global refugee trends from 2005 and an article about the recent deportation of immigrants from Lampedusa back to Libya.
Follow the link for details of Amnesty International's campaign for refugee and migrant rights.
The Center for Comparative Immigration Studies (CCIS), University of California, San Diego
CCIS conducts policy-oriented research projects on international migration and refugee flows throughout the world. This Web site includes "Death and the Moral State: Making Borders and Sovereignty at the Southern Edges of Europe," a paper based on research conducted in southern Italy on refugees and migrants entering Italy from Africa.
Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders)
The France-based aid agency provides assistance to immigrants and has criticized the Italian government for doing too little. In January 2004, Medecins sans Frontieres issued a critical report on the immigration centers in Italy and was subsequently forbidden to enter the immigration center in Lampedusa to provide assistance to immigrants.
Ministero dell'Interno (in Italian)
The official Web site of the Italian Interior Ministry includes reports on the trafficking of immigrants in Lampedusa.
France: Soundtrack to a Riot
This FRONTLINE/World Rough Cut goes to Paris to explore how last year's riots, rap, and the children of France's immigrant population are tied together.
"I, as a clandestine immigrant in Lampedusa" (in Italian)
This is Italian journalist Fabrizio Gatti's original report of his "adventures" posing as an Afghan migrant held in Lampedusa's detention center for a week in September 2005, then released without papers.
"Italian journalist posing as migrant reports abuse at detention camp"
Fabrizio Gatti's experiences inside the Lampedusa detention center were the subject of this article from the Guardian U.K. He reports being forced to sit in sewage and seeing other inmates being stripped naked and slapped.
African migrants' elusive dream
This BBC report features a number of personal stories from migrants who have risked their lives to leave Africa for better opportunities in Europe.