Italian Immigration Policies

The Metaphor of Water

Barca della Speranza
Italian Immigration Policies : The Metaphor of Water - Rima Al-Azar


How should Italy address its rising tide of immigration? This paper compares the phenomenon to the flow of water; it can be blocked or it can be channeled to bring about positive outcomes. Italian regulations since the 1980s have restricted and only mildly directed the flow of immigrants. Economically, Italy as a whole has benefited greatly from the entrepreneurial spirit brought by new arrivals. Culturally, however, the nation has yet to find the means to fully integrate its foreign-born population. To address the issue, the cost of immigrating illegally must be raised, while the cost of doing so legally must be lowered. The European Union, national and local governments should strengthen social services, increase access to the banking system, sponsor skills training in countries that send immigrants and link trade and migration together.

The Democratic Judge

Bertolt Brecht about Los Angeles

In Los Angeles, before the judge who examines people
Trying to become citizens of the United States
Came an Italian restaurant keeper.
After grave preparations
Hindered, though, by his ignorance of the new language
In the test he replied to the question:
What is the 8th Amendment? falteringly:
1492. Since the law demands that applicants know the language
He was refused. Returning
After three months spent on further studies
Yet hindered still by ignorance of the new language
He was confronted this time with the question: Who was
The victorious general in the Civil War? His answer was:
1492. (Given amiably, in a loud voice). Sent away again
And returning a third time, he answered
A third question: For how long a term are our Presidents elected?
Once more with: 1492. Now
The judge, who liked the man, realized that he could not
Learn the language, asked him
How he earned his living and was told: by hard work. And so
At his fourth appearance the judge gave him the question:
When was America discovered? And on the strength of his correctly answering 1492, he was granted his citizenship.

Bertolt Brecht
(From Writing Los Angeles, a Literary Anthology, The Library of America, 2002.)


The tide of dark, dangerous, poor people washing up on the Italian shores. The flux of foreigners.  The waves of clandestine extra-comunitari.  This is the common way of describing immigration in the media – a destructive, uncontrollable, body of water that invades a country, changes its society, corrodes its culture, and drowns the jobs available to local people.

However, like any body of water, when channeled properly, it can equally be a source of life and growth – as opposed to destruction.  Immigration can increase creative diversity, rejuvenate an aging population, fill in labor gaps in the industrial, agricultural, health, and service sectors, and be a bridge of development across the Mediterranean.

Should a wall be built to protect Italy from this assault coming from the sea, or should the flow of immigrants be properly managed to channel their capacity where it is most needed and in the most beneficial way for the community, the immigrant, and the sending country? In order to answer the question whether immigrants are a burden or a blessing and to formulate a realistic national immigration policy, we must examine the profile of immigrants, the national laws that regulate immigration, and local practices.  In addition, in order to ensure the formulation of a practical immigration policy and to reassert the right to monitor and control who enters Italy, rather than naïve openness or rigid restrictionism, or, for that matter, knee-jerk responses to the latest crisis, the impact of immigration on political, social, economic, and demographic factors needs to be analyzed.

Immigrants in Italy - A Profile

A current snapshot of the profile of immigrants in Italy renders a multinational, multireligious, younger-than-average group of people present predominantly in the center-north of the country.

Recent Inflows

According to the Forum Internazionale ed Europeo di Ricerche sull’Immigrazione (FIERI), the 1981 census exposed an unexpectedly high number of foreign residents (320,778). The first big influx, however, happened later.  Between 1984 and 1989, approximately 700,000 to 800,000 people entered Italy.  Of these, it is estimated that 300,000 to 350,000 entered or remained in Italy without a valid residence permit.  The most recent Caritas report on immigration indicates that in the last four years, the number of legal foreign residents has doubled to reach 2.6 million.  Currently, 1 in 22 persons living in Italy is foreign-born.

Even taking this into account, the sudden increases in the number of registered foreigners in Italy brought about by the four amnesties in the last 12 years, there are two significant features of immigration in Italy: rapid flows with substantial volumes and a high proportion of undocumented immigrants.

Diverse Nationalities and Religions

There are no overwhelmingly predominant nationalities among the immigrant population in Italy.  By December 2003, the largest national group was that of Romanians, who, however, made up only 10.9 percent of the total foreign population in Italy. The next most numerous nationalities were Albanians (10.6 percent), Moroccans (10.4 percent), Ukrainians (5.1 percent), Chinese (4.6 percent), Filipinos (3.4 percent), Polish (3.0 percent), Tunisians (2.8 percent), Americans (2.2 percent), and Senegalese (2.2 percent) (Source: Caritas, 2004.).

Neither can we speak of a prevalent religion.  In December 2002 – figures from Caritas and the Ministry of the Interior (re-elaborated by Caritas) – estimate that 24.1 percent of foreigners were Catholic, 21.6 percent were other Christian sects, and 36.6 percent were Muslims.2

If we consider 2003, the latest year for which data is available, most foreigners living in Italy were European (almost 44 percent) and have come to Italy for workrelated reasons (40.3 percent) or family reunification (32.2 percent).  Table 3 shows the type of visas issues in 2003 per continent of origin.

Predominant Northern Urban Presence

Foreigners reside predominantly in the larger urban areas.  According to the 2001 census, 32.9 percent of foreigners lived in the communes with more than 100,000 inhabitants.  A comparison between the 2001 and 1991 censuses shows a wider spread of immigrants into the smaller communities.  Table 4 shows the concentrations of non-Italians in the different communes according to population size.

Finally, immigrants tend to gravitate to the north of the country. Caritas has described roughly the geographic distribution of foreigners in Italy as 6-3-1.  In the north, where 60 percent of foreigners reside, they are to be found predominantly in Lombardy.  In the center, where a third of immigrants live, Lazio is the province that attracts the greatest number of them.  Finally, Campania is the region in the south that hosts the most immigrants.

Italian Immigration Laws - A Review

Like many of its southern European neighbors, Italy has struggled to find the right tone and approach toward immigration.  In the 1980s, almost overnight, Italy found itself transformed from a country of emigrants — providing a larger number of immigrants to the Americas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries than any other European country — to a net receiver of immigrants.  This inflow increased during the 1990s.  In fact, it was only in 1997 that the balance of remittances became negative.4

Prior to the 1980s, Italy did not have any laws to address the legal existence of foreigners.  The unique norm was that found in the public security law of 1931, which required foreigners to declare their presence to the authorities.  When the country established its first amnesty program for illegal aliens in the late 1980s, immigration policy became a matter of national concern.  Since then, several laws have been passed to regulate immigration in Italy.

The first of these laws (no. 943), passed in 1986, regulated immigrants’ access to the labor market.  Following the union-led protest in 1989 which forced immigration on the government’s agenda, Law no. 39 (known as the Martelli Law) was passed in 1991 and recognized both the rights and obligations of immigrants. 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 porous borders. While implementation and enforcement activities were criticized, the law was the government’s response to ease public discomfort and deep European skepticism about Italy’s ability to manage its long seacoast.  This was especially important since other European countries viewed Italy as the unsecured door through which immigrants were entering other European countries.

The main achievements of the Martelli Law were a broad-based amnesty that included employers and the establishment of an annual quota system with input from unions.  It is also to be noted that it was during that time that the first (and last) national conference on immigration was held to discuss the phenomenon of immigration in Italy.  However, Law no. 39 failed to define a real procedure for legal entry.  This slowly led to an increase in illegal immigration because both the Italian economy required a greater number of workers and Italian families a larger number of domestic helpers.

During the 1995-1996 period, the center-right government, under pressure from the anti-immigrant Lega Nord to increase police powers to deport illegal immigrants, passed the Dini Decree.  Unions led a demonstration with 150,000 protesters against the threat of increased police powers, which the decree envisaged. The final decree was revised to include an amnesty and its most restrictive aspects dropped.

The bulk of the legislation that currently regulates immigration and integration matters in Italy is the result of two laws. The Single Act no. 286 of July 25, 1998, which was essentially based on Law no. 40 of March 6, 1998, called the Turco-Napolitano Law5 and Law no. 189 of July 30, 2002, called the Bossi-Fini Law.6

In 1998, Italy came under further pressure to restrict illegal immigration in order to become a full member of the Schengen Agreement before the April deadline.  The Italian Law no. 40, of March 6, 1998, on immigration and foreigners, which entered into force on March 27, 1998, is a complex and detailed document. The law’s objectives were to improve efficiency in managing the flow of immigrant labor; increase prevention and containment of illegal immigration; and expand measures for effective integration of legal foreigners. The new law also provided annual planning for the immigration flow on the basis of an appropriate quota established by the government. The Turco-Napolitano Law was extremely strict in the matter of prevention and containment of illegal immigration. It dealt not only with new arrivals at the border, but also with those already illegally in the country.  All these new restrictive measures had the effect of bringing Italian policy in line with Schengen.  The illegal immigration enforcement part of this act was actively pursued and led to an increase in deportations, primarily of other Europeans and Africans.

The Turco-Napolitano Law was the first time that a law was proposed which delineated a procedure to become a legal resident in Italy.  Secondly, it also allowed foreigners to come to Italy even before they found employment.  Though, this could have reduced dramatically the numbers of illegal immigrants, this aspect of the law was rarely applied due to a fear that other European countries would accuse Italy of being too lax. Another innovation was the law’s recognition of immigrants’ social rights, including access to health services and family unification. The law separated for the first time humanitarian and refugee issues from immigration policy matters.  It also included an open category for third world immigrants and a reduced waiting period for permanent residency to five years.

Italy’s immigration picture changed further with the victory in 2001 of Silvio Berlusconi.  Berlusconi’s cabinet, which included members from the far-right Lega Nord  (which has made its opposition to immigration central to its electoral agenda) and the formerly neofascist 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, amended the 1998 Immigration Act and introduced new clauses.  Some of the most significant changes included: 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 provided for the legalization of two types of irregular immigrants: those employed either as domestic workers and home-helpers or as dependent workers. These individuals could qualify for regularization, provided that they had not received a deportation order.

The Bossi-Fini Law repealed the sponsorship that had been introduced by the Single Act of 1998.  The Turco-Napolitano Law had envisaged a job-seeker visa, providing for the allocation of an annual quota of residence permits to foreigners seeking employment in Italy. These potential workers could enter the country sponsored by private individuals, regions, municipalities and associations listed in a register.  Sponsors were required to deposit an economic guarantee, offer appropriate accommodation, and pay the contributions for public health insurance.

In contrast, the new law tightened the link between the work contract and residence permit by bringing them together under one single contratto di soggiornolavoro (residence-employment contract).  The residence permit for work was made dependent on a combined residence and employment contract. The residence permit was valid only for the same duration as the employment contract and could be for no more than nine months for seasonal workers; no more than one year for temporary workers; and no more than two years for non-temporary workers. Finally, it modified the 1998 law by requiring immigrants to have job contracts before entering Italy.

Both trade unions and employers’ organizations have criticized aspects of the new legislation, arguing that they could ultimately harm the national economy. Trade unions objected at the new mandatory employment contracts, fearing that they would be simply another barrier to entry and would divert potentially legal flows toward illegal and irregular channels.  Employers’ organizations were especially opposed to the provision that denied immigrant workers regularization if they had received a deportation order.  They noted that many firms that have employed these workers would be left without replacements, especially in regions of high employment.  Also, equally affected would be the many small and medium firms in northern Italy and farms in the south that rely on foreign labor.  In addition, the large and growing number of families who depend on Philippine or Sri Lankan home help would feel the impact of this new law.7

The Bossi-Fini Law also introduced a linkage between the quota allocated to certain countries and their cooperation in stemming the flow of people at the source. By pursuing this twin-track approach, the Italian government hoped to demonstrate to illegal immigrants that it was not worth taking the risk; and it wanted to make deals with governments of countries from which they set out. However, immigrants were not deterred by a law doubling the length of time that illegal entrants can be held after detention and imprisoning those caught reentering.  The reality is that illegal immigrants usually enter without papers and refuse to give their nationalities, to avoid deportation.  Most “expulsions” from Italy, except to Albania, are notional; the expelled simply go underground, or to another European country, after their release from detention.8

Other sectors within Italy, however, viewed 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 provided for a more selective immigration process, especially for immigrant workers.  Those in favor asserted that Law no. 189 provided a major innovation with regard to immigrants’ living standards and ultimately benefited Italy’s business sector by filling their ever-changing needs with a pool of better-qualified immigrants.  However, most immigration experts have viewed the Bossi-Fini Law as a restrictive law that denied immigrants some fundamental social rights.

All the above-mentioned progressively more stringent laws and amnesties have been stopgap measures, introduced in an emergency atmosphere.  Until now, Italy has failed to design and implement a comprehensive immigration policy that is based on political, economic, social, and demographic realities that take into account the long-term needs of Italy and the benefits that a regulated immigration policy would bring to Italian society.  In addition, providing immigrants’ political and social rights, and assisting them to better integrate into Italian culture would ensure a more harmonious and secure society.  Fortunately, the Italian government can be influenced by both its own regions as well as by the European Union in terms of policy formulation.

The Local Initiatives

The previous section reviewed the national Italian legislation governing immigration.  However, the devolution of certain administrative and legislative powers to the regions has allowed the regions to pass laws on the international recruitment of foreign labor and cooperation with sending countries (Chaloff, in OECD 2004).  In several of the Italian regions, these laws address the need for foreign workers in the context of international development projects.  Most Italian regions emphasize in their regional laws the importance of training for the return migration of workers who have been temporarily in Italy.

The different regions’ strategies have five common objectives for linking immigration and economic development.9  These can be summarized as follows:

  1. socioeconomic cooperation for the re-entry of migrants to their home countries;
  2. information and multicultural training to raise  awareness regarding thephenomenon of migration through cultural exchanges with institutions in the sending countries;
  3. economic and financial integration through immigrants’ resources and capacities;
  4. programs to manage the flow of immigrants;
  5. international cooperation for local development linking economic development with migrants’ flows.

The Veneto region is at the forefront of this kind of initiative, for two reasons (Barin in OECD 2004).  First, Veneto is the home of numerous small and mediumsized enterprises, and is experiencing the most acute labor shortage in Italy.  Second, local authorities are interested in regulating labor migration as part of their policy priorities.  On an even more local level, there are provincial activities in Veneto for facilitating immigration (e.g., a Chilean-Argentinean information desk in the province of Padua and a Brazilian recruitment center in the province of Vicenza).

Another example is that of the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region, which has been very active in Romania and has opened its third international desk in Bucharest to recruit nurses.  Some Italian regions have also worked with the Romanian government to provide language and professional training for Romanian workers wanting to migrate temporarily to Italy (Barbin in OECD 2004).  In some cases, regionally facilitated recruitment exists, in the absence of international agreements. For example, to ensure support of its regional tourist industry, the Trentino-Alto Adige region has taken the unusual step of placing its own staff in Italian consulates in central Europe to monitor and streamline administrative procedures for issuing seasonal work permits.

Local initiatives, in addition to regional development agreements with sending countries, include innovative programs providing services to immigrants. For example, the commune of Rome supports immigrants in establishing smalland medium-scale enterprises by providing them with soft loans at favorable interest rates.  In Treviglio, the Cassa Rurale has established a new service targeting immigrants and offering them competitive rates for sending remittances to their home countries.  Finally, numerous NGOs, such as Caritas, have developed different projects for assisting immigrants at the community level.

Several of these subnational- level migration and cooperation policies are quite promising.  This is true despite a number of serious structural limits, including a lack of coordination among different levels of government and the lack of resources necessary to effectively link migration and development.  With a greater degree of institutional harmonization and cooperation, as well as with a review of lessons learned from all these local initiatives, there is an opportunity not only to formulate a better-designed Italian immigration policy but also to share Italy’s experience with the European Union and contribute to a pan-European immigration procedure.

The Supranational Response

Italy, being a member of the European Union, has also to abide by the EU’s guidelines and regulations.  The Council of Europe’s Strasbourg Convention, which was held in February 1992 and ratified by Italy in 1994, provided guidelines and incentives for member countries to “guarantee to foreign residents, on the same terms as to its own nationals, the classical rights of freedom of expression, assembly and association.”10  In addition, the Strasbourg Convention called on all signatories to “make efforts to involve foreign residents in processes of consultation on local matters.”

Increasingly, the European Commission is addressing the issue of immigration in order to face “a set of apparent contradictions in migration-related issues.  The need to control borders in a post-September 11 security context is often at odds with the need to welcome visitors, promote trade, gain from orderly and selected migration, and strengthen the Union’s absolute commitment to free movement in a newly enlarged Union of twenty-five Member States”.11  In 2004, the EC’s DG Employment and Social Affairs published a green paper on economic migration, which is expected to be followed by a public hearing in 2005.  However, it should be noted that even if a fully harmonized set of EU rules is eventually achieved, it would unlikely ensure that all EU countries share a proportionately equal burden of immigrants and asylum-seekers.  That is because the laxness or otherwise of national regimes is only one factor determining where people migrate and where asylum seekers make their claims: family and cultural ties, work opportunities and language are equally important.

Compared to traditional countries of immigration – such as the USA, Canada, and Australia – Europe remains a closed and hostile continent.  In an article, the Economist recounted the poem inscribed on America’s Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free”) and wondered how the European Union would welcome immigrants. “A similar monument if it were to be built in Brussels, what message would it carry? Perhaps something like: ‘We have vacancies for a limited number of computer programmers and will reluctantly accept torture victims with convincing scars.  Migrants looking for a better life can clear off’.”12

The EU’s leaders have made it clear that controlling illegal immigration is a priority.  This urgency stems partly from the recent rise of populist anti-immigration parties across the Union, including France’s National Front, the Freedom Party in Austria, the Pim Fortuyn List in the Netherlands, the Northern League in Italy, and the Danish’s People’s Party.13  European politicians are worried that if they are not seen to act against illegal immigration, the far right will gain even more ground.

In particular, the EU is concerned with the ease in which illegal immigrants can be smuggled into Europe across the Mediterranean.  Many European governments who, in the past, have doubted Italy’s political will and capacity to manage its borders welcomed the restrictions brought about by the Fini-Bossi Law. However, some critics 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.

In addition to the combined driving forces of responding to right-wing local politicians and addressing security concerns, the EU is increasingly interested in looking at immigration as a way to maintain its competitive edge vis-à-vis the United States which is capable of attracting a greater number of highly-skilled immigrants.   Also, US immigration policy is one of the reasons why American society, on average, is younger and more dynamic than Europe’s.   Currently, the United States’ median age is 35.5, while Europe’s is 37.7.  But according to Bill Frey, a demographer at the University of Michigan, by 2050 the median age for Europe will have risen to 52.7, compared to a US median age of 36.2.  This difference is accounted for almost entirely by the dramatic aging of the European population, and these shifting demographic patterns have enormous fiscal consequences.  By 2050, it is estimated that the number of people over 65 will be equivalent to 60 percent of the working-age population in Europe, thus increasing the “dependency costs”.14

The same immigration issues that Italy is grappling with – namely, social and political integration, access to social services, impact on demography and labor market – are also of concern to the EU as it attempts to formulate a common strategy for all its member countries – a strategy that is at once pan-European, profoundly national and even local in nature.

Immigration and Policy-Making

As mentioned earlier, immigration policy is closely related to four main aspects of policy: political, economic, social, and demographic.  Placing these issues on a continuum, political issues fall in the realm of short-term decisions, whereas those that are economic in nature are more medium-term, followed by social and, finally, demographic policies that address long-term concerns.  While immigration is a hotly disputed political issue, this paper will address the economic and social aspects in more depth.

Economic Aspects of Immigration

As mentioned previously, politics and economics push the government in opposite directions when it comes to formulating a coherent immigration policy. Politics argue for being seen to clamp down on immigrants.  But economics argue for encouraging immigration.  Not only does the receiving country benefit economically from this self-selected, entrepreneurial group of people, but also the sending nation reaps benefits from the remittances sent home.

In the receiving country, immigration expands the economy by increasing the workforce.  Businesses also benefit from immigration because immigrants can fill specific labor shortages.  Though the fear is that immigrants “steal” the jobs of native workers, it is, however, the other immigrants who arrived earlier that are the most affected by the more recent inflow of foreigners.  Most of the research on the impact of immigration on wages has been carried out by the US National Research Council which reported that overall immigration reduced the wages of groups competing with immigrants – predominantly low-paid people – by 1 to 2 percent.15

According to economists, the potential economic benefits to the world of liberalizing migration dwarf those from removing trade barriers.  The benefits are even greater in countries, such as Italy, where populations are aging and economies are sluggish.  Immigrants, unlike natives, move readily to areas where labor is in short supply, thus easing bottlenecks.  They also bring a just-in-time supply of skills.  According to Caritas, in 2003 foreigners in Italy were employed in the following sectors: 7.4 percent in agriculture; 21.7 percent in industry; 27.2 in services; and 43.7 percent in domestic work.  The 12 most important fields of work by order of importance were: domestic work, construction, hotels and restaurants, agriculture, real estate activity, metallurgic industry, transport, commerce (retail and bulk), food sector, textiles, and public services.16

Another less noted and publicized factor of immigration is that of the risks immigrants take.  Not only are they willing to do the work that Italians are not interested in, but they also pay a heavier price in terms of work-related accidents – that could be deadly at times.  Whereas, work-related misfortunes suffered by Italians are decreasing, those happening to foreigners are on the rise.  According to the Istituto Italiano di Medicina Sociale, the number of work-related mishaps happening to foreigners increased from 73,778 in 2001, to 92,014 in 2002, to 106,930 in 2003 (of which 129 were fatal).17

Finally, another misguided fear commonly found in receiving countries is that immigrants are a burden on the public social services.  In fact, it has been found that in many cases, immigrants pay more in taxes than they cost in public spending.18  In Italy, the “badante” are themselves an informal social service system since they provide assistance to families by taking care either of the very young or the elderly when the state itself cannot provide these social services.

From the sending country perspective, the importance of remittances sent home by workers residing abroad has, until recently, been underestimated. According to the World Bank, worldwide remittances to low-income countries are almost double total Overseas Development Assistance provided by the developed countries.19  In addition, remittances’ impact on development is even greater than development assistance since they are not associated with an obligation to be repaid with interest; they are sent directly to the people for whom they are intended; and they cannot be intercepted and squandered by corrupt governments. There are no specific figures as to how much immigrants in Italy send back to their countries but it is presumed to be substantial.  The lack of statistics is partly due to the use of informal channels for sending money back home, which cost immigrants a great deal.  Scenting an opportunity some socially-minded banks (e.g., Banca Etica, Cassa Rurale di Treviglio) have started providing cheaper services for immigrants to send their remittances.  Ironically, Italy itself is one of the top 15 countries with total remittances received.  In 2001, Italians working overseas sent home €2.266 million in remittances.20

In addition to remittances, immigrants can have a positive impact on their home countries by setting up small-scale businesses upon their return.  This could lead to a transfer of skills they acquired while living and working abroad.  This link between immigration and development has only recently been explored.  And, as mentioned earlier, several Italian regions are at the forefront of setting up projects and initiatives to ensure the transfer of skills and to combat the brain drain caused by immigration.

In conclusion, the issue of migration is more a political challenge than an economic one.  Migration undoubtedly presents a marvelous opportunity for advancing human welfare, but this clash of economics and politics and weighing its costs and benefits is very difficult.  From a liberal economic perspective, the benefits are clear, however, when viewed with immediate political gains, the costs increase.21

Politicians and Italian businesses along with NGOs favoring immigration should unite to lobby for the easing of immigration rules and to raise public awareness regarding the economic benefits of immigration for the current generation and even more for the following one.

Kenneth Prewitt, the former head of the US Census Bureau, argues that “in the struggle to find workers to support growing economies, nations that are more hospitable to immigrants will have an advantage.”22 “Immigrants will go where they have friends and family to welcome them and help them find employment. Where will they find a more hospitable welcome – Europe or America?”  If left to the potential immigrants, a determining factor in their choice of country to immigrate to is the ease with which they can socially integrate, based on religious, linguistic and family ties, along with cultural affinity.

Access to Social Service and Cultural Integration

Italian immigration law differentiates between legal and illegal immigrants and their right to access social services.  The law also includes provisions for addressing cultural diversity.

Undocumented immigrants are given basic rights – essential public healthcare and state education.  The 2002 center-right reform changed undocumented immigrants’ rights marginally.  Undocumented immigrants are still entitled to all “essential services and treatment even if long-term,” not just to treatment in the event of emergency, pregnancy and for children, as is the rule in other countries.  Undocumented immigrants are given a special anonymous public health card.  They are asked to pay the normal contribution or to declare they are unable to pay it.  For undocumented minors, public education is not only free, but also compulsory.

The 1998 law limited temporary accommodation to legal immigrants only, but the Bossi-Fini Law specified that all “social integration measures” are limited to legal immigrants and therefore denied private bodies (for example, Catholic associations such as Caritas) the possibility of assisting and giving shelter to undocumented immigrants. Not all organizations have actually observed this regulation however. The Bossi-Fini Law also no longer allowed local councils to provide any kind of shelter in the event of exceptional illegal influxes, as was allowed under the Turco-Napolitano Law.23

FIERI – a think tank specializing in immigration issues – argues that pluralism would be better achieved by passing the Religious Liberty Bill.24  This bill would not only provide more freedom and benefits to religious minorities in Italy, but it would also allow the government to sign conventions with Islamic associations, which are currently under excessive foreign control.  The signing of such agreements would however send a strong signal and acknowledge public recognition of Muslim minorities in Italy.

Italians’ attitudes towards Islam have changed after September 11, 2001. Prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11, Italians’ expressed attitudes towards Islam were relatively tolerant.  According to a comparative survey conducted by the European Union in 2000,25 only 10 percent of Italians were against the entry of workers from Islamic countries (against a European average of 18 percent), 30 percent declared themselves ready to welcome them without restrictions (against a European average of 17 percent).  This is comparable to Italians’ attitude towards mainly Christian foreigners from Eastern Europe: 31 percent were ready to welcome them, and only 9 percent did not want them. The more hostile feelings towards Muslim foreigners – Moroccans, Albanians, Tunisians – seemed determined more by the high crime rates in their immigrant communities than by their religion. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a third of Italians have declared feeling more anxious towards people of Arab origin (ISPO, October 2001).26  However, according to a more recent poll, Italians are more willing to accept other religions: 70 percent would be against a law similar to the French one that forbids wearing the veil in public schools.

Examining Italian attitudes towards specific nationalities, an ISPO survey conducted in 2000 revealed that the two most positively regarded groups are the Filipinos and Senegalese.  However, the Roma are the least accepted, with only 24.3 percent of Italian responding that they “liked” them; slightly better off were the Albanians who were accepted by 37.8 percent of Italians.

Lastly, the issue of second-generation immigrants is one that is critical – especially for the future social stability of Italian society.  The fact that the law does not grant citizenship to those born in Italy – not even after having resided in the country for an extended number of years – means that they will suffer from an identity problem.  A tell-tale indicator of the problem of integration is the number of children born to immigrants attending school.  According to Nazzarena Zorzella, 30 percent of students in Bologna’s primary schools are foreigners.27  But their enrollment decreases at the high school level and is almost nonexistent at the university level.  This is a symptom of both a lack of educational and linguistic support as well as a reflection of the precariousness of immigrants.  Why should immigrants invest in the education of their children when their residence status can be at any moment be lost when they are no longer employed?

Italy has yet to find the means to fully integrate its foreign population and to benefit from the cultural variety and richness that they bring to society.  Though it is difficult to measure the value that diversity brings to a society, there is no doubt that immigrants are a self-selecting group of people who are unusually entrepreneurial.  Will Italy opt for the multicultural laissez-faire approach or put in place proactive integration policies, will it choose the “mosaic” method or the “melting pot” process to deal with immigration?  Or will it come up with a uniquely creative Italian way with dealing with the issue?  One conclusion is certain, for long-term social stability and harmony, immigrants need to be better integrated. Integration is a two-way responsibility:  Newcomers should make an effort to “when in Rome do (as much as you can) as the Romans do,” but the public authorities can also design programs to decrease prejudice against the “vu’ comprà” and the “marrochini.”

The Long Term Perspective: Demography and Policy-Making

As Auguste Comte, a 19th century French philosopher, once said, “Demography is destiny.”  Translated in a different way, this means that when formulating an immigration policy that is – even if only partially – based on demography, the long-term perspective needs to be considered.  Though demographic trends can change over the decades, demographic effects last longer, and have a wider impact than most social and/or economic forces.29

Italy has the lowest birth rate in Europe.  It currently stands at around 1.8 births per woman when it is necessary to have a rate of 2.1 to keep population size constant.  It is expected that by 2050 the number of Italians may have fallen from 57.5 million in 2000 to around 45 million.  In addition to a shrinking population, life expectancy is on the rise.  It is expected that by 2050, based on present demographic trends, the ratio of pensioners to workers will be one-to-one in Italy. Since pensions in Italy are prepaid out of current tax revenue, the implication is that taxes will have to be significantly increased to fund the generous pensions. However, average earners in Italy are already paying close to 33 percent of their wages into the state pension scheme.

The impact of immigration on demography is a double one: not only does the number of people increase but immigrants usually have a higher fertility rate than the native population thus also contributing to an increase in the number of inhabitants.  In addition, immigrants are a relatively young group.  According to ISTAT, immigrants in Italy have a median age slightly over 30 years (30.4 for men and 31.4 for women) in contrast to a median age for the Italian population of 41.7 (40.1 for men and 43.1 for women).

However, immigration alone will not be sufficient to resolve the demographic challenges that Italy faces.  The OECD calculates that immigration might have to be between five and 10 times its current level just to neutralize the economic effects of Europe’s ageing populations.  Persuading Italians to have more children is the obvious alternative answer.  Part of the problem may be what Italians call the “partial emancipation” of women, who are free to pursue a career but are still expected to fulfill the responsibilities of the traditional “casalinga,” or housewife, by bringing up children, looking after the grandparents, and doing the housework.  Making family life easier and/or less expensive might help keep up the population.  For example, France, which has some of the most extensive state-funded child care in Europe, also has one of its highest birth rates.

The impact of immigration on demography is clear.  Foreigners who are more youthful than the native population and have a higher fertility rates not only produce a larger population, but a society that is younger, more mixed ethnically, and on balance more dynamic.


Any immigration policy – or lack thereof – will be a reflection of how the Italian government and Italian society at large view immigration and immigrants. Will Italians think of foreigners as an uncontrollable, destructive tsunami wave? A water tap that can be opened and closed depending on internal societal pressures? An unpredictable rain that depends on external factors such as wars, or economic depressions? Or a water channel that can be designed and directed to where it is most needed to ensure a flourishing society and continued economic and social growth?

Regardless of how immigration is viewed, it is clear that a large number of Italian public and private institutions—ranging from businesses and civil society to the government—have become deeply implicated in migration.  Economic and labor demands, social and security interests, colonial history, and political priorities create the conditions that allow and even encourage migration.  Reducing this complex relationship to its simplest form, each and every consumer in Italy is implicated in migration by the mere fact that he or she benefits enormously from the work of immigrants.

In an informal policy note prepared by the World Bank and the Hamburg Institute of International Economics advising the EU on immigration policies, the authors provide the following recommendations for a win-win European immigration policy between sending and receiving countries.30  Italian policymakers could find that these recommendations are equally applicable to the Italian context.

  1. Bilateral exit and entry controls and joint recruitment strategies: The objective of such measures is to increase the entry costs of irregular immigrants while simultaneously decreasing them for legally admitted ones.  This entails a review of the visa types, visa allocations, and labor permits by linking them to skill levels, knowledge of language, and other required features.
  2. Social protection and access to social services for migrant workers: Though reduced access to welfare provisions is sometimes conceived as a policy tool to lessen the attractiveness of receiving countries, immigrants should have the right to access healthcare, education, unemployment insurance, and pension systems. Sending and receiving countries should develop mechanisms guaranteeing transferability of social welfare benefits.  Such mechanisms could even encourage return migration.
  3. Secure and enhance remittance flows and access to the banking system: Governments should attempt to reduce the fees associated with remittance flows. The European experience of reducing transfer fees within the euro zone could be a good practice that could be replicated.  In addition, immigrants should have easier access to banking services, in particular access to credit.  This would help them to establish new businesses and expand existing ones.  It would also improve the economic integration and performance of immigrants, because, on average, they are more entrepreneurial than the native-born population.
  4. Strengthening transnational communities: Enabling migrants to keep ties with their countries of origin would increase economic, social, and cultural ties between Europe and a larger number of countries, thus enhancing economic and other opportunities.
  5. Skill formation and co-development: The EU could sponsor training specifically needed skills in schools and universities in sending countries.  Support of educational facilities in neighboring regions would counterbalance potentially negative effects of brain drain for sending countries.
  6. Trade-migration link: Migration is sometimes described as globalization from below.  Negotiations on future bilateral and multilateral trade and cooperation agreements between the EU and developing countries could include both importexport and migration-related issues.

In addition to this supra-national perspective, the challenges that one particular Italian region – Emilia-Romagna – is facing could also shed light on the general Italian context and provide further guidance to the design of any future immigration policy.

In conclusion, a new and different approach to immigration policy formulation would recognize the complex nature of the issue and the multitude of stakeholders.  It would search for a win-win approach that would benefit the receiving country, without harming the sending one, while guaranteeing the political and social rights of the immigrant.   In order to find such a solution, the management of immigration might be turned into a national project that would involve civil society, employers, government and other public institutions alike.

As indicated previously, there are already several elements that could become the first building blocks of such a new immigration policy.  Different regional initiatives linking economic development and migration, discussed earlier, as well as local good practices of improving remittance flows (the example of the Cassa Rurale in Treviglio) and access to credit (the Comune of Roma) could be replicated across Italy.  The fact that Italians, compared to other Europeans, are more open to immigrants is also a factor that would help to create an enabling environment for a more comprehensive policy.  Finally, the government could tap into Italians’ experience of being immigrants themselves to increase voters’ acceptance of a more politically and socially oriented immigration policy.  As the American judge in the Bertolt Brecht poem took into consideration the socioeconomic context of the non-English speaking Italian immigrant and granted him his political rights, similarly, an Italian immigration approach could be more flexible and understanding.  By remembering the Italians who were sent in the 1940s and 1950s to work in the Belgian mines32 and were abused and mistreated, any current immigration policy should protect the social rights of foreign workers and protect them from being exploited.

The first step in this direction could be to hold a national conference with representatives from all the major Italian parties as well as civil society, religious institutions, the private sector, and immigrant associations to discuss a future Italian immigration policy that would guarantee the flourishing of Italian society in the decades to come, ensuring economic growth, social stability, and moderate population growth.  As Caritas points out, this is the only way to guarantee a “società aperta, società dinamica e sicura”.

Notes & References

  1. This paper does not analyze refugee and asylum types of migration.
  2. “Main Features of Italian Immigration Stocks and Flows,” (September 2004)Forum Internazionale ed Europeo de Richerche sull’Immigrazione (FIERI), Torino, 2004 <>
  3. Nazzarena Zorzella, “Dall’Europa delle migrazioni all’Europa dell’integrazione”come cambiano le strutture di accesso all’informazione ed ai servizi” (lecture, Infopoint Europa, Bologna, Italy, 10 December 2004). <> <>
  4. Jonathan Chaloff, “From Labor Emigration to Labor Recruitment: The Case ofItaly” Migration for Employment: Bilateral Agreements at a Crossroad (2004) OECD, Paris, 2004
  5. After the names of the then center-left Government Ministers of Social Affairsand of the Interior.
  6. After the names of the Minister for Devolution and the Deputy Prime Ministerof the current center-right government, the leaders of the Lega Nord and Alleanza Nazionale respectively.
  7. “Stemming the Flow,” The Economist 13 June 2002.
  8. “Men in boats,” The Economist 23 October 2003.
  9. Regioni e province autonome tra cooperazione e immigrazione (2002) Centro Studi di Politica Internazionale (CeSPI), Rome 2002
  10. <> (May 20, 2003)
  11. Migration Policy Institute: Conference on Future European Cooperation in the Field of Asylum, Migration and Frontiers (September 2004) Ibid: “Conference Summary Report” in Netherlands’ European Union Presidency Conference on the Future EU Cooperation in the Field of Asylum, Migration, and Frontiers (Amsterdam, 31 August - 3 September 2004)
  12. “Huddled masses, please stay away,” The Economist 13 June 2002.
  13. Ibid.
  14. “Half a billion Americans?,” The Economist 22 August 2002.
  15. “Who Gains from Immigration?,” The Economist 27 June 2002.
  16. XIV Rapporto sull’immigrazione, Caritas/Migrantes, Immigrazione – Dossier Statistico (2004) Caritas, Rome 2004
  17. Ibid.
  18. “Opening the door,” The Economist 31 October 2002.
  19. “Monetary Lifeline,” The Economist 29 July 2004.
  20. Remittance Data, Migration Information Source, 1 June  2003, Migration Policy Institute
  21. “Migration and Development,”  6 May 2004 <http://>
  22. “Half a billion Americans?”
  23. FIERI, 2004.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. The IPSO survey was conducted in October 2001, only a month after the terroristattacks.  One wonders if a survey were to be carried out now what would the results be?  Also, Italians’ negative feelings are more toward Arabs and not Muslims – Senegalese enjoy a rather positive impression.
  27. Zorzella
  28. “Europe’s Population Implosion,” The Economist 17 July 2003.
  29. “A tale of two bellies,” The Economist 22 August 2002.
  30. “Challenges and Opportunities of International Migration for the EU, Its MemberStates, Neighboring Countries and Regions A Policy Note,” Social Protection Discussion Paper Series, Robert Holzmann and Rainer Münz, 0411 (2004). Washington, DC, The World Bank, 2004.
  31. “Comparing US and European Approaches to Issues of Immigration” inContemporary Issue Series, 16 (symposium, University of Bologna, Dickinson College, Clarke Center, Bologna, 20 – 21 June 2003).
  32. In 1946, the Italian and Belgian governments signed an agreement whichstipulated that for each day an Italian worker toiled in the mines of the Walloon region, 200kgs of coal would be sent to Italian state enterprises.  This gave an incentive to the Italian government to encourage migration and institutionalize the mechanisms of recruitment and transport of these workers.  A turning point was the 1965 tragedy in Marcinelle, Belgium when 262 miners died in an explosion; 136 of them were Italian, including many adolescents. (Chaloff, 2004).
Rima Al-Azar, a candidate for the M.I.P.P. degree, has worked extensively on international development issues with various multilateral organizations and NGOs. She specializes in assisting vulnerable groups at the community level. Her experience spans the Middle East, Africa, the Balkans, Central Asia, India, and the United States.