Rusconi, S.: Italy´s migration experiences, 2010

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From its constitutional creation in 1861 up until the late second half of the 20th century, Italy experienced one of the biggest exoduses in modern history. In the time span of only one hundred years, more than 25 million Italians - a number equivalent to the total Italian population in 1861 - left the country.

After unification, Italy was burdened by a huge public debt. In order to balance the country’s budget, the so-called “corn flour tax” (tassa sul macinato) was imposed, which drove numerous peasant families to emigrate. This was the first push factor leading to ten decades of mass migration caused by economic backwardness and poverty.

The most common destinations were industrialized countries of North Europe and both North and South America. Between 1976 and 1976, 13 million Italians (52% of total emigrants) expatriated to other European Countries; most went to France (4,317 million), followed by Switzerland (3,989 millions) and Germany (2,452). Another 11 million Italians (44% of total emigrants) went to the Americas: the majority to USA (5,691 million), the rest to Argentina (2,968 million), Brazil (1,457 million), Canada (637,123 thousand), and Venezuela (285,000 thousand). The rest, about one million persons, emigrated in the similar proportions to Australia and Africa. The emigrants originated about equally from both the southern and northern regions of Italy, whereas less came from the central regions. Around two-thirds were male.

We can distinguish four principal phases of emigration:

• 1876-1900: Emigration of workforce mainly from North Italy due to the agricultural crisis and widespread indigence and directed to Europe and South America.

• 1901-1915: The Great Emigration (nine million departures; 600,000 annually): the industrialization of Italy was slow and irregular and the surplus workforce, most from South Italy, expatriated to USA.

• 1916-1944: Decrease in the pace of emigration between the two World Wars, due to legislative restrictions in USA and to the anti-migration policy adopted by the fascist regime to keep high the reputation and the army potential of Italy high.

• 1945-1976: The post-war period recorded a new increase in the emigration flux to South America, France, Switzerland, and Germany. At the same time the internal displacement from rural to urban centers and from South Italy to the more industrialized northern region also increased.

The year 1976 represented the end of mass emigration from Italy and marked a turning point. For the first time in Italian history the number of immigrants coming from abroad was equal to the amount of Italians emigrating. In the following four decades Italy transformed from a typical southern country of emigration to one of the most important European destination country alongside Spain, Germany, France and the United Kingdom.

After the Turning Point: Phases and Characteristics of Italy as a Host Country

After 1976 Italy started to receive a growing number of immigrants coming from developing countries and eastern Europe. The number of foreign residents increased from 143,800 in 1970 to about 300,000 higherin 1980. By 1985 it reached half a million. In 1990 the foreign population increased to one million, in 2000 to two million and in 2005 to three million. According to the Italian National Institute of Statistics the number of foreigners living in Italy in 2010 were 4,279,000 million, 7.1% of the total population, an increase of 10% to 2009.

Contrary to northern European countries that demanded workforce from abroad to sustain their economic growth, the phenomenon of immigration in Italy was completely unplanned and followed different paths. The beginning of immigration flows towards Italy were, in part, explained by the closure of the labor markets of Britain, Germany and  France in 1974 when they were hit by an oil shock. Foreign immigrants were pushed to choose different countries of destination and Italy became a sort of “second choice country”. It must be also considered that Italy was recovering the gap with North European countries and was experiencing an economic boom, an increase of per capita income, and a growing number of people obtaining higher education degrees. These socio - economic improvements, together with the lack of an immigration policy and the long porous frontiers, all acted as pull-factors for immigration. Simultaneously, high fertility rates, unemployment, low wages, and poor working conditions in the country of origin and - given the proximity of Italy to ex-Yugoslavian and Africa countries – the relatively low transportation costs all functioned as push-factors. Immigrants took up low-remunerated and low-skilled employment. Job openings were found in sectors such as family services, in the agricultural sector, in construction, in many small industries, and in the informal economy.

Italy further differentiates itself from other European countries with respect to the origin of immigrations flows. Old European countries of destination like Britain and France, or new ones like Spain, consistently attracted steady flows from former colonies. In Italy, though, this regularity was never valid. Immigrant flows originated from many heterogeneous countries, creating a fragmentation of the foreign groups.   

The composition of the immigrant population changed remarkably in the 1980s and 1990s. The proportion of immigrants who came from the European Union declined whereas the proportion of immigrants from outside European Union increased, accounting for 86% of the total in the late 1990s already.

During the 1990s, the majority of foreign residents came from North Africa (most notably Morocco, Tunisia and Senegal) and from the Philippines (most of who were women employed in the domestic labor mark). The collapse of the Soviet Block and former Yugoslavia gave rise to consistent flows from eastern and south-eastern European countries, flows that have grown progressively in the 2000s to outnumber the presence of North Africans and Asians. Albanians and Romanians became the most numerous groups in late 2000s, but also migrants from Ukraine and Moldavia have shown consistent and growing flows toward Italy. According to the latest data of the Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT) in 2010, about half of the foreigners living in Italy (2,086 millions, 49.3% of all immigrants) came from Eastern Europe: half from the new European Union members and half from non European Union members. The biggest foreign groups came, in order of magnitude, from the following countries: Romania, Albania, Morocco, China, Ukraine, Philippines, Moldavia, Poland, Tunisia, India, Macedonia, Ecuador, Peru, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Senegal, Pakistan and Nigeria. They constitute over the 80% of the total foreigners resident in Italy.

Wherever there are major and rapid migratory flows, like on the Italian peninsula, there are also illegal entries and residents. Yet in Italy the phenomenon of irregular immigration has always been especially pronounced, making it difficult to calculate the exact numbers of foreigners present. It is estimated (OCSE 2009) that irregular immigrants represent about 1% of the total population in Italy and about 25% of foreigners living in Italy (between 500 and 750 thousand).

Italy attracts such large amounts of illegal migrants not only because of its frontiers, which are quite extensive and difficult to control, but also due to its widespread shadow economy. The singular expansion of the sector of domestic and personal services and the diffusion of small businesses facilitate the growth of an irregular workforce. Overdue and incomplete governmental policies also contributed significantly to encouraging irregular flows. During the end of the 1970s and all of the 1980s, Italy adopted an “open door” policy characterized by nearly non-existent regulation, and scarce external controls and security procedures. Thus, most of the immigrant pioneers easily entered a visa-free Italy and settled into the country either by working in the informal economy or finding a loophole in Italian legislation. Only in the 1990s, a time when a large percentage of immigrants were still undocumented, the legal entitlements of immigrants still undefined, and the process of integration still nonexistent, did provisions progressively get introduced. These allowed the legal admittance of non-EU citizens and created legal channels of entry, including  the facilitation of entry of lawful labor migrants. However, the problem of irregular migration had always been dealt with using inadequate instruments, promoting ex-post adjustments through regularization schemes rather than foster new regular flows from abroad. Regularization schemes (regolarizzazione or sanatoria) are special provisions of the Italian law on migration which enable irregular immigrants already living in Italy and who meet specific requirements to rectify their irregular stay in the country and obtain a residence permit. During the period between 1986 and 2009 Italian governments enacted six regularization schemes that received 1,744,744 applications of regularization (294,744 in the last “sanatoria” of 2009). The effect of these regularizations seems not to have reduced the illegal immigration; on the contrary, they seem to have left a “back door” open to irregular immigration and have effectively attracted new irregulars into the country.  

Origin and Evolution of Italian Migration Policies

Migration Without a Legal Framework (1976-1986)

As mentioned, an indefinite and inconsistent legal framework on migration characterized the first decade of migration towards Italy to the extent that we can define the period between 1976 and 1986 as a period of migration without a legal framework. The first attempt to design a comprehensive migration policy was the Act 943 of 1986. This act was accompanied by the first large-scale regularization scheme and was an attempt at addressing the legal status and rights of immigrants. It regulated the status of foreign workers according to the principle of equal work for equal pay and granted foreign salaried workers access to all social services and welfare provisions. Yet if failed to address the important issue regarding autonomous work that characterize a great part of new immigrated workforce. Furthermore, it did not reform external control or security procedures. In its collective imagination, Italy was still an emigration country and had difficulties perceiving itself as a destination country. The uncertain status of immigrants was not seen as a challenge to state controls, but rather as an attack on foreign rights. However, the act was never implemented and the first (real) operative legislation dates back to 1990.

The First Law on Migration (1990)

The first act on migration was the so-called Legge Martelli, Act. 39 of 1990.This act introduced visa requirements for most sending countries, reformed the deportation procedures for irregular immigrants, and introduced sanctions for migrant smugglers and traffickers. For the first time some aspects of the Italian asylum-seeking procedure was reformed, making it possible for non-Europeans to seek asylum in the country (see the section Refugees and Asylum-seekers).

At that time Italy was involved in the Schengen process and the above-mentioned law was, in part, an attempt to comply with membership requirements and assure other European members that it was able to prevent the entry of unwanted immigrants into the Schengen space.

The act also implemented another regularization scheme, recognized the demand for foreign workforce, and for that purpose, set up a yearly “Planned Contingent” of legal entries of foreign workers. This was the main tool planned by the government to manage immigration flows to Italy. Predictably, it was not sufficient and delays, unreasonable assumptions, and muddled procedures resulted in stimulating irregular immigration and informal hiring.

Addressing New Systematic and Comprehensive Policy Reforms (1996- 2001)

In the second half of the 1990s new reforms took place and gave rise to the first systematic Italian migration law, the Turco-Napolitano law, Act. 40 of 1998, promoted by the centre-left coalition.

 During the first years of the 1990s, the collapse of the former Yugoslavia and Albania and the civil war in Somalia put Italy under even more pressure of irregular immigration and asylum-seekers. European member states considered Italian borders too “porous” and demanded Italy to adjust them in compliance with Schengen criteria, which required more border controls in order to protect the expanding “Fortress Europe” against uncontrolled immigration.

 The law contained new repressive measures aimed at making clandestine entries more difficult and repatriations procedures more effective. The opening of Centers for Temporary Detention of irregular migrants, where migrants could be detained for up to 30 days while their deportation was organized, was authorized.

The law was also defined by solidarist and multiculturalist positions. The law guaranteed access to education and to the National Health System for all immigrants, included irregular immigrants. The act equated legal immigrants with Italians with regard to all social rights; it acknowledged the right to family reunifications and introduced the institution of a permanent residence permit (carta di soggiorno) that foreigners could apply for after five years of permanent residence. It also instituted a Found for Migration Policies to finance integration and multicultural initiatives with the support of NGOs and other philanthropic institutions.  

 Within the area of foreign workers the act established a compulsory annual decree to determine the entry contingent for non-EU citizens, including seasonal and self-employed workers. It also expanded the possibilities for immigrants to be part of this contingent, introducing a one-year job seeker’s residence permit.

The Centre – Right Reforms (2001 - 2006)

In 2001 the centre – right coalition returned to power after an electoral campaign focused on migration. Right-winged parties, most of all the identitarian and xenophobic party Lega Nord, were able to exploit and fuel security worries that were widespread in the public. The new government modified the former migration law through the approval of the new Bossi – Fini law (n. 189/2002) in 2002.

 The new centre – right act was inspired by restrictive positions. It intended not only to introduce more effective tools to fight clandestine entry and irregular residence, but also to limit legal entries. Procedures in obtaining a residence permit and contract of employment became more rigid. In addition, it relied on registered employment as the main mean of integration. The one-year job-seeker residence permit was abolished and a “unified contract of employment and residence” introduced, implying that potential immigrants would only be allowed to enter the country if they already possessed a contract of employment, and could only stay as long as the contract lasted. Moreover, the law requested that the prospective employer had to guarantee the availability of lodging and pay the immigrant’s trip back home at the end of the employment relationship. Concerning security measures, a “sea landings-decree” was introduced, granting the Italian Navy the right to take control of ships in open sea suspected to carry clandestine immigrants. It also extended the temporary detention of irregular immigrants to be deported to a maximum of 60 days.

 Despite the restrictive provisions of the law, the largest regularization ever granted in Europe occurred under it, and 634,728 people were regularized during the right-wing government. It is worth mentioning that the entire apparatus of social and family rights of all immigrants (including irregular ones) was left intact.

The Second Round of Centre – Right Reforms (2008 – 2010)

During its short-lived legislature (2006-2008), the centre - left coalition did not succeed in putting any substantial innovation in migration matters into practice. In 2008 the centre – right coalition Popolo delle Libertá, lead by Silvio Berlusconi, came into power again. His return also implied the strengthening of the repressive components in immigration policy. On May 2008, the Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni launched the so-called “Security Package” (Pacchetto Sicurezza), including legislation on migration in the wider area of public security measures. This association had obvious consequences not only in terms of public conception of the immigrants as cause of crime and security problems but also in terms of promoting worry and distrust among the population.

The following two laws are the main laws contained in the “Security Package”:

• Law n. 125 of 2008, conversion of the former legislative bill “Urgent Norms on Security Matters”.

• Law n. 94 of 2009, “Regulations on Security Matters”.

Critics accused the new legislation of promoting discrimination and of violating the principle of equality for all citizens. These accusations were founded upon the fact that the legislation had changed the Penal Code and introduced the crime of illegal entry and the possibility of deporting a foreigner in case he or she was sentenced to more than two years after being found guilty of a crime. It introduced more severe punishments for irregular immigrants who committed a crime, related to their status of being irregular. It has also defined providing aid and assistance to irregular immigration as a crime: for example those who rent a house to irregular immigrants can be punished with the seizure of the home, a detention period from six months to three years, and a sanction ranging from ten to 50 thousand Euros. The period of detention in the Centers for Temporary Detention, renamed Centers of Identification and Expulsion, was extended up to 180 days. Residence permits, asylum demands, and family re-unifications have been submitted to more constrictions and difficulties.

An article of the law required both immigrants to show a residence permit in order to benefit from the health care system and medic personnel to report irregularity. This article gave rise to harsh debates and protests in civil society, especially medical personnel. The protesters refused to denunciate irregular immigrants and demanded equal treatment for everyone, arguing that the new obligation could have had serious health consequences of irregular foreigners, who, under the risk of being expelled, might decide not to use the health care system. Under the pressure of these critics, the government finally decided to repeal this article.

On the whole, the new regulations imply such a substantial reduction of foreigner’s rights that they clash with the fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution. Once again, the efforts have concentrated on the (already) ineffective repression of irregular immigration through the control of spatial movements, without giving any attention to internal factors such as the widespread shadow economy that motivate and pull these flows. Furthermore, barely any consideration has been given to the integration of foreigners; on the contrary, it seems to promote a climate of inequality and differentiation. The prohibition of the health system, fortunately revoked, and the introduction of “differentiated classes” for children of immigrants are only two examples.

Asylum-Seekers and Refugees

In 1954 Italy signed the Geneva Convention on the status of refugees, but Italy imposed a geographic condition: only refugees coming from Europe could apply for asylum. It took more than 30 years until, in 1990 with the Martelli law, this provision was abrogated, and the right to asylum was extended to all nationalities. Until then Italy had not progressed significantly and asylum matters are still generally regulated by article 1 of the Martelli law.

In 1992 Italy ratified the Dublin Agreement, which came into effect in 1997 and established that an application for asylum can be rejected if the same application has already been received by another European Union member state.

In 1998 the Turco-Napolitano law replaced the Martelli law, although this did not imply significant changes in the asylum legal framework. Only the Bossi-Fini law in 2002 introduced new regulations through the transformation of some procedures. Particularly, it introduced a simplified procedure to examine asylum applications. Instead of a central institution, the prefectures (territorial bodies of the government) were now in charge of determining the status of a refugee. They instituted a territorial commission that should examine the asylum application within a period of 15 days and determine the outcome within three days. Asylum-seekers can ask for a re-examination. The law implied the allocation of funds to the “National Plan for Asylum” to finance assisted repatriation, protection, and integration measures, including professional training, even if asylum-seekers are prevented from working.

In 2008 Italy acknowledged the European directive 2004/83/CE (, which defined minimum standards for the qualification and the status of refugee as well the rights that follow status recognition.

Between 1990 and 2000 the majority of asylum applications were represented by Albanians (21,300), ex-Yugoslavians (12.197), Iraqis (12,123), Romanians (6,114), and Turks (4,250).During the first half of the 1990s, humanitarian residence permits were guaranteed not only to refugees, but now also to displaced persons coming from ex-Yugoslavia and Somalia (57,000 ex-Yugoslavians and 10,000 Somalis between 1991 and 1995).

In the 2000s, the number of applications coming from the African Horn (Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan and Ethiopia) and Western Africa (Liberia, Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Sierra Leone) has exceeded those coming from the “traditional” regions (Balkans, Eastern Europe, Middle East). Also, demands of Afghanis, since the beginning of the war in 2001, have increased.

Refugee demands have decreased since the “Security Package” regulations, which included a severe policy of rejection of immigrant boats off of the south Italian coasts, have come into effect. The “rejection-policy” (politica dei respingimenti), together with arbitrary detention of persons arriving and the bilateral pacts stipulated by the Italian government with the dictatorial regime of Libya to restrain immigrants, brings into question the degree to which Italy respects asylum-seekers and the international rights of refugees. The majority of people entering Italy by sea are asylum seekers. Returning boats back into the open sea allowed officials to circumvent their responsibility of evaluating the need of protection and request for political asylum of the incoming immigrants. According to Amnesty International, among the 500 immigrants returned to Libya in May 2009 there were Somalis and Eritrean in dire need of protection.

The Integration of Immigrants

The incorporation of immigrants in Italian society initially took place through the labor market, which needed workforce for low-remunerated and unqualified jobs in the domestic services sector, in agriculture, in the construction sector, in many small industries, as well as in the informal economy. The Turco-Napolitano law in 1998 was the first law that outlined general integration policies; until then there was no specific mention in legislation about integration. Due to the territorial diversification of immigrant communities, the diversification ofmigratory trajectories, and labor market situations in the country, local institutions have been charged with the implementation of integration policies in cooperation with NGOs and other philanthropic associations that have always played a central role in receiving and supporting immigrants. In the same year, the National Commission for the Policies of Integration of the Immigrants was assigned the task of delineating an “Italian integration model”. The outcome was the so-called “reasonable integration” (model), which is based on the rejection of the assimilation model and the recognition of cultural pluralism and an intercultural approach that promotes the exchange between immigrants and Italian society. The first rudimental strategy to achieve this goal was the recognition of the person’s rights, including the irregular migrants’, and the mobilization of civil society (Italian local authorities and NGOs as well as immigrants’ associations).

The change in the political majority in favor of the centre-right coalition meant a drastic change in the government’s approach to integration: an assimilation approach replaced cultural pluralism. Considering the xenophobic and racist discourses of some members of the government part of the Lega Nord party, this change was no surprise. The integration project of the former centre-left government was consequently abandoned and the financial resources initially devoted to integration and the promotion of equal opportunity were drastically cut. Predictably, the “Security Package” of the incumbent centre–right government has not improved the integration situation, considering it diverted all its efforts to security measures, borders control, and forced repatriations. Moreover, the unification of the contract of employment and of residence implied that, once again, immigrant acceptance and incorporation in the society was subordinated to the need of the workforce, which should be available to cover jobs refused by Italians. This signified unequal professional opportunities and the practical impossibility for immigrants to reach qualified positions. Immigration matters were addressed only from the perspective of public order and economy, disregarding other important aspects of a foreigner’s life and interaction with the Italian society, namely cultural and social integration, and civil and political rights.

One of the most important elements for the integration of foreigners neglected by the government policy has been education and the accessibility to a well-organized and structured national scholastic system. The presence of foreign pupils in the classrooms has become a structural feature of the education system, but the government seems to find it difficult to recognize and has not arranged adequate tools for the scholastic system to be able to receive and integrate foreigners in an intercultural environment. This is even more important given the recent growing phenomenon of “second-generation” immigrants (in 2009, 60% of total foreign minors were born in Italy). The national regulations lack specific indications and financial support for foreigner integration in the schools, leaving all responsibilities to local authorities. As a consequence the quality of services for integration strongly depends on local decisions and tools, and is highly fragmented on national territory. Even if numerous cases of territorial good practices exist, local authorities usually have to cope with a scarcity of budget and personnel due to policy cuts in education induced by the current government. For example there is a continuous shortage of specialized teachers of Italian as a foreign language, a need of prime importance for foreigners’ integration and academic success. As a consequence, as statistics show, foreigner scholars generally obtain worse results than their Italian schoolmates.

Public Opinion and Societal Reaction

Given the fact that Italy has been an emigration country for more than a century, the process of recognizing the phenomenon of immigration as significant has been slow and overdue. Only in the 1980s did the idea of “foreigners” as “immigrants” enter the Italian public discourse, becoming a daily presence in the media as an important object of politics and academic reflections. At the beginning the discourse, as shown by the media, was focused on anti – racist themes. Immigrants were not considered as a problem in terms of state control and organization; on the contrary, the limited preparation of the state towards the newcomers was criticized for providing an inadequate protection of their human rights. This perspective changed drastically during the 1990s when the debate started to become highly politicized, occupying a central point in political controversies, legislative initiatives, and social conflicts. In these years the differentiation between “foreigner” and “immigrant” or “extracomunitario”, an equivalent of immigrant in public discourses, became fixed and broad unifying categories, essentially bringing together different conditions and situations under vague terms. Both definitions soon started to acquire a negative connotation in the collective imagination. After the first consistent inflows from Albania in the early 1990s, the media increasingly started to diffuse news on criminal acts committed by Albanians, emphasizing their foreign origin. Since then the media have always spread news that represented immigrants in association with deviant behavior and criminal episodes. As a consequence immigrants, and in some cases specific nationalities particularly stigmatized by media (first Albanians, then Roma and Romanians), are considered as the main cause of crime and insecurity by public opinion. According to a research conducted by the University of Rome in 2009, of a total of 5,684 migration related television news broadcasts observed over the last 20 years, only 26 broadcasts did not treat migration as a crime or security issue. This skewed media view has induced prejudices, mistrust, unjustified concerns about security and public order, and portrayed the topic of immigration as an urgent problem to solve. But statistics show that these concerns about security are groundless and that there is a clear contrast between public perception and reality. While immigration has grown constantly over the last 20 years, the criminal rates have maintained constant. Additionally, Italians have shown similar percentage of criminality as foreigners.

 Another element that has contributed to the negative conception of immigrants in public opinion has been the birth of the racist and xenophobic Lega Nord party in 1994. Since its inception, it has lead a campaign of indiscriminate hate and prejudice, first toward South Italians, and then toward immigrants, accusing them once again of making the country unsafe and compromising Italian cultural and social traditions. Due to their specific characteristics, the media has always been given great leeway in these kinds of discourses. In fact, politicians control the debate in the media, leaving out others relevant individuals, most of all foreign communities, and concentrating on ideology rather than on legislation contents and principle issues like integration. The “Security Package” remarks even more on the link between security and immigration. Its main effort is directed at the elimination of the phenomenon of undocumented people landing on South Italian coasts. Even if these landings represent only 1/50 of the total immigration, the clandestini (clandestines or irregulars) as they are generally called, dominate the core of the public debate, thereby excluding regular immigrants, or in the worst cases, provoking confusion between regular and irregular immigrants. The term clandestino has become a label imbued with stereotypes and prejudices and is often considered as an equivalent of criminal. This equation of “irregular = criminal” denotes a widespread ignorance and a superficial judgment of the migration phenomenon by the majority of the Italian citizens. The condition of irregularity is always neglected. Illegality results not from what an immigrant actively commits - like a crime - but from a specific status (what he or she is) according to the definition of the state that establishes the border between legal and illegal. But this border is often weak and can suddenly change depending on state decisions, as shown clearly by the example of the regularization schemes that enabled more than 1, 5 million irregulars already living in the country to obtain the status of regular immigrants within a short time. Another anomaly that proves the illogicality of public thought is that domestic collaborators, mainly undocumented immigrants, are usually well accepted and integrated in families and are not considered clandestini, even if they have the same status.

It can be concluded that the attention of public opinion is turned by media and political ideology to less relevant security and public order matters, producing not only unjustified worries and wrong assessments of immigration, but also diverts attention from more important issues such as the real contents of legislations, the effective characteristics of the migration phenomenon, the matters of integration, and the recognition of the economic and socio – cultural enrichment that foreigners bring.


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