E.g., 06/22/2024
E.g., 06/22/2024
Italy's Southern Exposure

Italy's Southern Exposure

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Updated March 2003 with the assistance of Maia Jachimowicz

Like many of its southern European neighbors, Italy has struggled to find the right tone and approach toward immigration. In the 1980s, seemingly overnight, Italy found itself transformed from a country of emigrants — providing a larger number of immigrants to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries than any other European country — to a net receiver of immigrants.

Today, immigration poses several challenges to Italy. Its southern border has made it an easy target for undocumented immigrants. Regional conflict has fueled an increase in those seeking work and asylum in Italy and, from there, other countries. Meanwhile, nontraditional sending countries to Italy are providing a growing number of immigrants, further diversifying Italy's immigrant population.

Recent Inflows

In 2000, Italy's official statistics reported 272,000 legal admissions, led by immigrants from Albania, Morocco, Romania, China, and the Philippines. Together, these countries accounted for slightly more than 38 percent of the total residence permits granted. This number is substantially larger than the 1998 total of 111,000. Some of that increase was due to Italy's fourth regularization program initiative in 12 years, which accounted for roughly 130,700 entries in 1999 and 116,200 in 2000. Even absent the regularization program, entries in 1999 and 2000 demonstrate a marked increase over 1998, leaving no doubt that immigration remains a growing force.

Asylum and Refugee Requests

Italy has been acutely affected by conflict in the Balkans, on the Mediterranean rim, and elsewhere in the broader region. Overloaded ships arriving on Italy's shores from Albania, Turkey, and other countries have underscored the country's geographical vulnerability both as a final destination and as a bridge to other countries of the European Union.

Italy received 24,500 applications for asylum in 2000, a decrease from the more than 33,000 applications lodged in 1999. (Each application may be on behalf of more than one person.) The requests came primarily from Turkish and Iraqi Kurds, and from applicants from countries such as Afghanistan and Iran. Despite the decreasing trend, the 2000 numbers are still much higher than the total number of requests (11,120) placed in 1998.

It was only in 1990 with the passage of the Martelli Law (see below), that Italy expanded its protection of refugees to include those arriving from beyond Europe. Prior to that, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had assumed responsibility for non-European refugees arriving in Italy. The Martelli Law also set out the basic rules for asylum admissions and processing in the country.

Still, even today, Italy has few "convention refugees," i.e. those recognized under the UN's 1951 Refugee Convention. What it does have are several groups who have been extended temporary protection and permission to remain for special humanitarian and other exceptional reasons. In 1999, 18,000 people from Kosovo and 1,015 Bosnians were allowed to remain under these special arrangements.

It is somewhat difficult to estimate the true number of asylum seekers within the country. The passage of four regularization programs (in 1986, 1990, 1995, and 1998) may have given individuals the opportunity to regularize their status without having to go through lengthy and uncertain asylum processing procedures.

Staying and Becoming Italian

In 1985, the number of foreign-born people in Italy holding a residence permit was estimated at approximately 423,000. By 1991, that number had more than doubled, reaching 896,800. In 2000, the foreign population had reached nearly 1,388,200, with some 850,700 immigrants in Italy for employment reasons. Morocco and Albania combined account for more than 20 percent of the stock of the foreign population in 2000, but there have been some shifts in other, smaller populations. For example, South Americans and immigrants from China continue to increase in numbers.

Despite a relatively restrictive naturalization policy that requires, among other things, 10 years of residence, more foreigners are choosing to assume Italian nationality. The number of naturalizations has increased steadily from 7,442 in 1995 to 11,570 in 1999. More than 84 percent of the naturalizations are due to marriage with an Italian citizen. With more than a decade of steady increases in immigration, the country is likely to witness many more naturalizations.

Today, most of Italy's immigrants work and reside in the central (34 percent) and northern regions (54 percent) of the country rather than in the islands or southern regions. However, the majority of undocumented immigrants (primarily from Morocco, Albania, Tunisia, Romania, Poland, and Brazil) enter Italy via its exposed shores. This imbalance has fueled heated political debate because, while immigrant labor is increasingly needed, especially in the North, public opinion has continued to associate high immigration levels with increased crime and poverty.

Policy Adjustments

Italy's transition to a receiver of immigrants has been abrupt, fueled by civil strife in the former Yugoslavia and Albania and economic distress in North Africa, as well as by the restructuring of the Italian labor market under increasingly competitive global pressures. Certain jobs, too, have become less appealing to Italians as the country has become wealthier. Together, these forces have required no small amount of political and social adjustment.

When the country established its first amnesty program for illegal aliens in the late 1980s, immigration policy became a matter of national concern. It was in 1990, however, when the government passed the Martelli Law, that Italy's first comprehensive immigration legislation was set in motion. The new law aimed to attract multilateral attention to Italy's growing immigration concerns and to increase "burden-sharing" to help Italy manage its increasingly busy borders. While implementation and enforcement activities were criticized, the step boldly declared the government's intention to ease public discomfort and deep European skepticism about the government's ability to manage its long seacoast. This was especially important as Italy was viewed from many other European capitals as the unsecured door through which immigrants were accessing other European countries.

Italy's 1998 Immigration Act for the first time separated humanitarian and refugee issues from immigration policy matters. This new legislation provided for tougher action on illegal immigration, limited immigrant admissions based on quotas, and gave greater attention to immigrant integration issues. This has ultimately had the effect of bringing Italian policy in line with the Schengen Agreement. The illegal immigration enforcement part of this act has been actively pursued and has led to an increase in deportations, primarily of other Europeans and Africans.

Looking Ahead

Italy's immigration picture changed further with the victory in 2001 of Silvio Berlusconi, conservative media magnate and now prime minister for the second time since 1994. Berlusconi's cabinet, which includes members from the far-right Northern League (which has made its opposition to immigration into a central electoral plank) and the former neo-fascist National Alliance, has been seeking ways to curtail immigration into Italy and to deploy a range of enforcement and control mechanisms. In August 2002, the government passed legislation to regulate immigration, and in September of that same year adopted a decree to provide for the regularization of undocumented immigrants already in the country.

The new Law No. 189, also known at the Bossi-Fini Law, amends the 1998 Immigration Act and introduces new clauses. Some of the most significant changes include: immigrant quotas, mandatory employer-immigrant contracts, stricter illegal immigration deportation practices, amnesty for illegal immigrants who have worked and lived in the country for over three months, and new provincial immigration offices to help manage immigrant worker and family reunification cases. The law also provides for legalization of two types of irregular immigrants: those employed either as domestic workers and home-helpers or as dependent workers. These individuals may qualify for regularization, provided that they have not received a deportation order.

Both trade unions and employers' organizations have criticized aspects of the new legislation, arguing that they could ultimately harm the national economy. Trade unions disagree with the new mandatory employment contracts, fearing that they are simply another barrier to entry and will divert potentially legal flows toward illegal and irregular channels. Employers' organizations are especially opposed to the provision that denies immigrant workers regularization if they have received a deportation order. They note that many firms that have employed these workers will be left without replacements, especially in regions of high employment.

Other sectors within Italy, however, view the new legislation positively. Employers must now sign formal contracts that guarantee immigrant workers housing and return travel expenses, while also fixing wages and length of employment. Furthermore, the stricter visa issuance policy provides for a more selective immigration process, especially for immigrant workers. Those in favor assert that Law No. 189 provides a major innovation with regard to immigrants' living standards and ultimately benefits Italy's business sector by filling their ever-changing needs with a pool of better qualified immigrants.

Many European governments who have questioned Italy's political will and capacity to manage its borders also welcome the changes. Some critics, however, continue to question certain elements of the new law. They believe that creating bilateral agreements that focus on smart border management and economic development in sending countries is the only answer to Italy's illegal immigration problem.

With a 7,600-kilometer (4,720 mile) coastline to patrol and one the world's lowest total fertility rates (1.23) it is clear that Italy will have more immigrants and fewer Italian workers in the years to come. Managing immigration flows in the context of such extreme demographic shifts will remain a challenge for any subsequent government.


European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. 2002. "New legislation regulates immigration." http://www.eiro.eurofound.ie.

Hein, Christopher. 2000. Italy: Gateway to Europe, but Not the Gatekeeper? In Kosovo's Refugees in the European Union, ed. J. van Selm, 139-161. London: Pinter.

Migration News. Various editions. http://migration.ucdavis.edu/

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Continuous Reporting System on Migration (SOPEMI). Trends in International Migration (various editions). Paris: OECD Publications.

Papademetriou, Demetri and Kimberly Hamilton. 1996. Converging Paths to Restriction: French, Italian, and British Responses to Immigration. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.