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Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Rome
Directorate General for Migration Policies

"Italy's Recent Change From An Emigration Country to An Immigration Country and Its Impact on Italy's Refugee and Migration Policy"

Rome, 15 November 2002

Lecture in the International Seminar for Experts " European Migration and Refugee Policy - New Developments", organised by the Cicero Foundation in the series Great Debates in Rome on 14-15 November 2002.


Migration is one of the main issues of this century. In the past 50 years the world population has risen from 2.5 billion to today's 6.1 billion, 85.6% of whom live in the developing countries. Conversely, the world's wealth has become concentrated in the developed world. 150 million people in the world can be defined as migrants. Of these, about 20 million live in the European Union. And this number is bound to increase as the world's population rises, and the economic gap widens : it is no wonder that there is such pressure to enter Europe.

Like all the other leading European countries, Italy is having to deal today with an increasing inflow of foreign nationals from various parts of the world. Given her geographical position as the natural crossroads between the Mediterranean Basin and northern Europe, Italy is having to deal with immigration on the front line.

I would like to offer you a few figures which will illustrate the magnitude and the features of migration into Italy :

Italy's population is 57 million, of whom just over 1,500,000 are foreign nationals. Even though this is one of the smallest percentages of immigrants in Europe (about 2.8% of the population compared with the EU average of 5%, peaking in Austria, Belgium and Germany at 9%) there is a constant increase in the influx of foreign nationals (in 1999 the number rose by more than 20 percent in one year). This increase indicates that migration into Italy is accelerating sharply. This is an important factor that helps to explain some of the difficulties facing the Italian system in adapting in terms of reception facilities, and in social and cultural terms. As far as the number of foreign workers arriving each year is concerned, Italy is among the leading countries in Europe, following Germany and the United Kingdom, and at a level with France, with over 100,000 new arrivals recorded in 1999, 2000 and 2001. Considering that the immigrants heading for Germany are mainly only staying temporarily in Italy, while two-thirds of the new arrivals in Italy intend to settle permanently, one can understand that Italy has become one of the main migration outlets in Europe. Another interesting feature of migration in Italy is the fact that it is not possible to identify any one prevalent foreign community within the foreign population, more along the lines of what one finds in the United States of America (and in North America as a whole) than in the rest of Europe. This is an important feature to be borne in mind when drawing up national policies to foster the integration of immigrants, which must show that they are able to respond to socio-cultural demands. The last point I would like to emphasize is that migration is a comparatively recent phenomenon for Italy: in the decade 1989-1999, Italy's foreign population more than trebled from 490,000 to 1,500,000.

Italy is, therefore, faced with a sudden change in her role. After having been, until recently, an emigration country, Italy has to take up the challenges thrown down by the increasing number of foreign nationals in political, social, economic and cultural terms.
I will therefore try briefly to explain the particular characteristics of the Italian approach to immigration, both internationally and domestically, for which the new Immigration Act (law No 189/2002) has introduced a number of important changes.

International Aspects of Immigration

Italy's migration policy is designed to achieve two objectives: to favour the entry of foreign nationals into Italy, particularly to meet the demands of the domestic labour market, and to prevent illegal immigration on the grounds of security and public order.

As we shall see, these are two very closely linked, but conceptually distinct objectives, and I shall deal with them separately.

Combating Illegal Immigration

Italy, as a natural Mediterranean bridge with Africa, the Balkans and the East, is perhaps the most vulnerable external border of Europe, making Italy the most exposed to penetration by illegal immigrants from the South and from the East precisely because of her geographical position. According to the data, 20,294 illegal immigrants had landed on Italian coasts between the beginning of the year 2002 and 22 October 2002, of whom as many as 15,000 landed in Sicily alone. However, it should not be forgotten that illegal arrivals across the Mediterranean by sea are certainly the most "visible" aspect of the phenomenon, and the one which has the greatest impact on public opinion and is also the most difficult to deal with in practice, but it is not the largest in terms of the numbers involved.

For us, then, combating illegal immigration and the trafficking of human beings is a priority both in terms of security and foreign policy, a priority to which public opinion is also sensitive. The trafficking of human beings is at all events closely linked to other criminal activities, such as smuggling, drug trafficking, arms trafficking, organised prostitution, undocumented employment and child labour. And there is also a possibility that it involves serious risks connected with the inflow into Italian territory of members of terrorist organisations.

We are therefore aware that if we are to achieve significant results in terms of controlling migration and combating illegal immigration it is essential to enlist the cooperation of the immigrant's home and transit countries.

Constant bilateral diplomatic action and pressure on these countries is therefore a fundamentally important instrument in our work in this area, which has often produced concrete results. In September this year, for example, for the first time in almost a decade there have been no landings from Albania. We have also begun heightening the awareness of the countries involved, or at risk of becoming involved, in illegal immigration by sea, which can often have a high death toll, as evidenced from the recent tragedies at Porto Empedocle and Scoglitti, to make them realise the need for each country to ensure that the boats leaving their shores and coasts comply with international shipping safety standards (the so-called principle of "Port State Control"). Since 1997 Italy has played a very prominent part in drafting international standards and rules to combat the transport of illegal immigrants by sea. This has led to the adoption by the United Nations of the Protocol against the Unlawful Traffic of Migrants by Land, Air and Sea, annexed to the United Nations Palermo Convention on Organised Transnational Crime in December 2000.

Italy is also committed to establishing a wide-ranging network of readmission agreements (at the moment 27 have been signed, of which 18 are now effective and 17 are currently being negotiated). These agreements lay down the procedures and the formalities for identifying and repatriating illegal immigrants. This implements the general principle of international law which obliges States to readmit their own nationals who have illegally entered the territory of another State. And it is obvious that cooperation between the home countries and the transit countries is essential to ensure that these agreements operate properly.

Lastly, it may be useful to mention, among the instruments for combating the trafficking in human beings, the cooperation between the police forces which has been stepped up with many countries through a whole series of activities to provide assistance, including the exchange of experts and the running of training courses.

Entering Italy Legally

Unlike many other European countries, Italy has an annual quota system for immigrants in search of work which is set in a Prime Ministerial Decree (the so-called "Influx Decree"). The quotas are based on a survey of manpower requirements on the national labour market conducted by the Ministry of Labour, which reserves specific quotas for the nationals of countries that we consider to be effectively co-operating to combat illegal immigration and the traffic in human beings.

In order to use these quotas, and indeed for authorising any foreign national to enter Italy for work, a selection should be carried out and training provided for those intending to emigrate into Italy before they leave home. In this connection, I would like to recall the AILE (foreign workers computerised registry) that has been set up in Tunisia and Albania to help match the supply and demand for work. This might be extended to other countries, but it could also be more finely tuned in order to make it work more effectively. This is part of the thinking underlying Law No 189/2002. Section 19 of this law makes provision for foreign nationals wishing to enter Italy for work to be required to attend vocational training courses and education courses in their home countries, approved by the Italian Authorities, in order to give them prior right to an entry visa for work. I should also like to mention the many projects being conducted by Italian development cooperation to provide vocational training services.

The European Context

Italy has also been pursuing these same objectives within the European Union, where we have been advocating a gradual enlargement of the Union's powers over immigration issues. In 1999 the Amsterdam Treaty brought immigration into the scope of the Community by empowering the Council to adopt measures regarding border controls, asylum and immigration. In view of the emergency, Italy has also managed to put the issue of combating illegal immigration and the traffic of human beings on the Union's political agenda. This is a problem that we cannot resolve on our own, and, even though it may seem to be the reverse at first sight, all the countries of the European Union are affected by it (only 25-30 percent of the illegal immigrants arriving in Italy actually stay here, while the remainder move northwards).

The conclusions of the Seville European Summit largely reflect the Italian position. Immigration must take account of the hosting capacity of the member states, and must be carried out in compliance with the law. The home and transit countries must cooperate with the EU, there must be adequate resources available at the Community level (at the moment funds are absolutely inadequate). And, lastly, provision must be made for burden-sharing. The Seville Council sent out a clear message regarding expulsion and repatriation policies, visas, readmission agreements, laws to combat organisations responsible for trafficking of human beings, while the objectives set for the common border controls largely coincide with a feasibility study which Italy submitted last May. The Seville Council laid down a very clear timetable for the coming months. The Danish Presidency has already begun implementing it in terms of the integrated management of the external borders and laws governing legal immigration and asylum.

Domestic Aspects of Immigration

As far as Italian domestic legislation is concerned, Law No. 189/2002 has been in force since last September, modifying and in many parts innovating the earlier Act (Law No 186/98). While we are still working on the regulations for implementing this law, I think it is interesting to note the main novelties that were introduced with it.

First and foremost, in order to coordinate, supervise and lay down guidelines regarding immigration, a Coordination and Monitoring Committee has been set up, chaired by the Prime Minister, whose work is prepared by a Technical Group at the Ministry of Home Affairs.

As far as legal immigration is concerned, the main aspect of Law No. 189/2002 is to permit foreigners to enter and stay in Italy, provided that they have a job. The aim is therefore to integrate foreign nationals into the labour world and into Italian society, partly to prevent their lack of employment exposing them to exploitation and crime. We have therefore introduced the concept of a "stay permit for employment purposes", under which the employer must guarantee that the employee has adequate accommodation and undertake to pay the cost of the immigrant's repatriation when the labour contract expires. This makes employment the central focus of the Italian immigration system.

Sponsorship has been abolished. Previously this enabled legally resident foreign nationals, entities and associations to provide a guarantee to enable the foreign national to spend one year in Italy to seek employment. As I have said already, a specific provision has been introduced to favour foreign nationals who have taken a training course in their home countries on the basis of a vocational training syllabus approved by the Italian Authorities.

When Law No. 189/2002 came into force, it was accompanied by other legislation making it possible to regularise the position of illegal immigrants already living in Italy and working with families or businesses. This regularisation process depends on a declaration by the employer and not merely on evidence showing that the foreign national was present in Italy on a certain date. The regularisation period has just ended, and we are awaiting the results, which should show that several tens of thousands of foreign nationals have had their positions regularised.

As far as combating illegal immigration is concerned, Italy has moved in three directions in order to implement the most effective strategy.

Firstly, emphasis has been placed on cooperation with the home and transit countries, whose action to prevent illegal migration flows and to combat organised crime is taken into account when drafting and revising cooperation programmes and when setting the reserve quotas in the "Influx Decree".

The whole procedure for administrative deportation has also been substantially changed in order to provide the best possible guarantee that deportation orders are actually implemented, and to heighten the deterrent effect against potential illegal immigrants. It is now the rule that anyone deported is escorted to the Italian border by the police. When it is not possible to deport an individual immediately for whatever reason (medical care, identification, the lack of travel documents or of an available carrier) the foreign national may be detained for a period of 60 days (instead of 30 days) in a temporary reception and assistance centre. It is now a criminal offence for expelled foreign nationals to return to Italy and remain there illegally, for which they may be arrested. However, deportation may also be used as an alternative or substitute penalty to imprisonment, when the individual's sentence is shorter than two years.

As far as criminal law is concerned, the penalties have been stiffened against those responsible for trafficking human beings, and those aiding them, while penalties may be shortened in the case of those who cooperate with the police and the courts. The Ministry of Home Affairs is responsible for coordinating border controls, while the Italian Navy can provide support to vessels being used for policing purposes. In order to identify individuals, foreign nationals requesting or renewing a residence permit are required to be finger-printed and photographed.

Italy's Asylum Policy

Italy has always paid particular attention to issues relating to refugees and asylum, as evidenced from our excellent relations with the UNHCR, and the measures we have implemented to deal with crises that have broken out in recent years in Somalia, Albania, former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. Even though Italy is not amongst the top countries in Europe in this respect, there has been an increase in applications from individuals to be granted refugee status (about 10,000 in 2001).

And even though Italy does not have specific legislation on asylum, the Italian legal system governs the issue completely, through different legal instruments. Article 10 of the Constitution expressly recognises the right of asylum. Section 1 of Law No. 39/90 (the so-called Martelli Act) and the regulation implementing it, contain rules governing the procedure for examining applications and the treatment of asylum seekers while awaiting a decision. The National Commission for the Recognition of Refugee Status and the 1951 Geneva Convention (which is an integral part of Italian domestic law, unlike in many other countries) define the rights of refugees in Italy. Section 28 of Law No. 286/98 (the so-called Turco-Napolitano Act) deals with humanitarian asylum or temporary protection when there are extraordinary arrivals of individuals caused by war, natural disasters or other particularly serious events. Further is there the 1990 Dublin European Convention, which determines which member state is responsible for examining asylum applications.

Italy is playing an active part in the ongoing debate within Europe on asylum-related issues. With the entry into force of the Amsterdam Treaty, asylum now falls within the jurisdiction of the Community. The process of European harmonisation was given a fresh impetus by the recent Seville Council Summit, which laid down specific deadlines for transforming the Dublin Convention (December 2002) into a Regulation, and for adopting minimum common legislation procedures for recognising and revoking refugee status (Directive, December 2003), granting refugee status, and the content of protection status (Directive, June 2003), hosting asylum seekers in member states (Directive, June 2003).

Lastly, the new Law No. 189/2002 has introduced a number of changes to asylum legislation, due to the concern to avoid asylum applications from being made solely to prevent deportation and expulsion orders from being carried out. In these very clearly defined cases, short timescales have been set for the decision to be taken and reviewed (streamlined procedure) and shorter periods established for detention for the purposes of identification.


As I said at the beginning, immigration is a comparatively new phenomenon in Italy, which has always been a country of emigrants. For the first time we are feeling the pressure of immigrants coming to our country, whereas previously we considered migration to be a safety valve for spare manpower of which our own labour market had no need.

This is a radical change, but I consider that it is now an integral part of the economic and social situation of Italy. Until only a few decades ago, we were a country of emigrants and therefore we must necessarily be particularly sensitive to the problems of people who leave their own countries and come to ours in search of work, in the hope of a better quality of life for themselves and their families. Anyway, a country whose demographic growth is close to zero needs foreign labour in order to underpin its own development.

Everything therefore depends on implementing an integrated and consistent policy designed to govern and properly manage immigration: a co-development policy (think of the effects that the future enlargement of the EU can have on stabilising the whole of the Balkans area), an open-doors policy offering guarantees for foreigners staying legally in Italy, an effective power in combating illegal immigration and the traffic of human beings, whose first victims are the very illegal immigrants themselves who are exploited and often subject to violence. It is certainly not an easy task, but there is no doubt that it is one of the main challenges of this century.

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