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Illegal Immigration in Italy

-History of Italy's
Illegal Immigration Problem-

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Italy’s immigration issues did not start as early as those of its neighbors. Not until the 1970s did foreigners start traveling there to find new jobs or better lives. In the years before this, there was a large amount of immigration into Western Europe, particularly during the de-colonization of many African countries. These people were mainly immigrating to France, which was actually encouraging immigration for a couple of reasons, one was to try to increase the labor market after World War II, and the other was to try to increase France's domestic population in order to keep up with that of Germany (Newman). The increase in foreigners was a benefit for France at first, but during the 1960's and 1970's many of the French colonies in Africa started gaining independence, during which time there was a boom in immigration to western Europe, for example, in 1962 nearly one million refugees fled to France when Algeria gained its independence. Unfortunately the housing situation in France is run by and paid for by the state, so these extra people were only costing the country money. In 1973, due to racism against these foreigners, Algeria stopped migrating to the countries in the European Economic Community (ECC), and a year later the ECC formally closed its doors to migrant workers who were not from the ECC (Newman). But at this time, Italy’s government did not follow suit, for many years before that point, Italy had been a place people mainly emigrated from.

This influx of immigration was not yet a large problem. Italy has always had a very low rate of population, so it was actually welcoming these workers. These migrants that were being shut out of other western European countries looked to Italy as an easy place to get into unnoticed. At first Italy was used as a way for foreigners to get into the European Union, and eventually many decided to stay there once they crossed the border. In 1986, a law was passed by the Italian parliament that protected those workers from outside the European Union by giving them more rights and trying to secure them more jobs in Italy. This increased the amount of foreigners in the country even more (the Italian exception). As of December 31, 2000, the number of non European Union citizens in Italy was over 1.2 million, an increase of about 2.5% from the 300,000 in the 1970's(Paparella).

One tactic the Italian government used to get these people to come out of hiding was to hold amnesties for any illegal immigrants, a time where they could apply for Italian citizenship and not get punished for having been there illegally. This worked on one level, since this reduced the number of workers in the underground sector, thus reducing the size of this unrecognized economy. Between 1986 and 1998, the Italian government held 4 amnesties, granting citizenship to about 700,000 people. But this did not solve the problem, it actually ended up attracting more migrants. Italy’s labor force fluctuates, and, like many other countries, it needs these foreigners to work in its factories (Tessitore,7). Unfortunately, not only did these amnesties cost the government a lot of money, they made Italy's immigration policies appear lenient. This in turn has made even more foreigners want to move there, and since there is so much red tape involved with getting legal citizenship, many choose to enter the country illegally. At the moment, the policy is that if a foreigner wants to find work in Italy, they must have their name put on a list by going to an Italian consulate. Italian employers then go to labor offices in Italy to hire people off of these lists, which can take a while, sometimes a couple of years (Zincone, 3).

Italy’s geography makes it a perfect spot for illegal immigration, and unfortunately many Africans have died somewhere along the route across the Mediterranean Sea to get from places like Tunisia and Libya to southern Italy (see map). Officials of Italy and of some African countries have tried deter people from trying to make the trip by publicizing these boating accidents , showing them that it is not worth the risk. But maybe it is; the Southern border of Italy is apparently very easy to get through, plus the fact that those who are caught are rarely actually deported back to their countries. In the first year that Silvio Berlusconi was president, 140,000 illegal immigrants were caught, and only 82,000 of them were actually deported (Bruni). Many times, once they are caught, they are given a couple of days to leave the country, they then end up going underground, or, since at this point they are already inside the European Union, it will now be easy for them to move around between most of the Western European countries (Oketh). This is because the immigration policies within the European Union are much different than those between European and non-European countries. The hard part for these people is gaining entry into the EU, after that they probably will not even need a passport to travel from country to country as a result of the Schengen Treaty of 1985, giving all members inside the EU the right to move freely across the borders(Oketh).

Another way these immigrants find ways into the country is quite creative; when their small boats are met by Italian coast guards as they are approaching the Italian shores, the immigrants find a way to make their boat sink, or cause the motors to stop working, so that there is no way they can be turned back. At this point, they know that the coast guard will have to rescue them by bringing them inland (Bruni).

Some of the most visible problems being caused by this immigration are regional conflicts between groups of Italians and immigrants (racism, violence), fluctuating unemployment rates, increase of workers in unrecognized economic sectors, and the fact that the country is paying for a large amount of foreigners to be incarcerated in their prisons (Tessitore, 7).


One of the reasons why these people are not deported when they should be is the 1998 immigration legislation, law 40/98, more commonly known as the Turco-Napolitano Law. Part of this law states that those foreigners who are arrested (for various reasons, usually crime related), are to be judged by a magistrate. If the magistrate decides that this person will be deported, they are then given two weeks to appeal the decision, during which time they would be able to slip underground and out of sight (Paparella). This law was followed by Single Act 286, in July of 1998, which was based on the Turco-Napolitano Law. Its two main goals were the integration of immigrant minorities while creating an environment of low conflict between nationals and migrants, and of respect for immigrants personal integrity. The act also requested full rights for legal immigrants and basic rights for illegal immigrants. Supporters of this legislation, members of center-left party, tried to match the demand of labor with the supply of migrant workers. The idea of this act was that it would handle any problems or short-comings of immigration laws that had failed in other European countries, and keep any aspects that had succeeded (Zincone, :2). Unfortunately for those pushing this act, it was deemed too complicated, and many thought there were too many loopholes regarding immigration, it gave foreigners too many rights.

In July of 2002, new legislation was passed, Law 189, commonly known as the "Bossi-Fini Law," contained an amendment to the Turco-Napolitano Law, stating that illegal immigrants will be ordered to leave the country within five days, during which time they will be held in Italian custody. The problem with this, however, is that proper deportation procedure is not always followed; foreigners are often not deported as they should be. For example, in 1999, there were 11,269 immigrants that were detained awaiting deportation by the Italian Government, but only 3,987 of them were actually deported back to their countries (Statewatch Bulletin). In 2000, the government issued 64,734 deportation warrants, while only 2,867 of them were actually carried out (Jewkes).

Last updated April 20, 2004

Illegal Immigration in Italy