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The Immigrant Population | Italy |

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The Immigrant Population

Dr. Giorgia Di Muzio

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On the 1st of January 2012 more than 4,850,000 foreigners were estimated to live in Italy, that is 8% of the total population. Compared to the previous years, Italy's foreign population has significantly increased not only in total numbers but also with regard to their proportional share in the total population: in 2011, 4,570,317 foreigners were registered as residents in Italy, equal to 7.5% of the total population, while in 2010, 4,235,059 lived on Italian soil, constituting 7% of the total population.


However, as can be seen from Table 3, the growth of the foreign population has slowed down in the last few years.

Number of foreign residents and annual increase, 2006-2011

Data as of 1st January

*: estimate by Istat, 2012
2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012*
Total foreign residents2,670,5142,938,9223,432,6513,891,2954,235,0594,570,3174,859.000
Increase over previous year (%)-10.1%16.8%13.4%8.8%7.9%6.3%

Source: elaboration by the author based on Geo-Demo Istat data

The reasons for this slowdown are to be found in the recent economic recession that has hit Italy, like all of Europe. The economic crisis has caused a worsening of conditions for stay and employment, resulting in increasing numbers of foreign residents returning to their home country or moving to other countries. At the same time, the decrease in Italy's foreign population is also due to naturalization. In 2010, for example, 65,938 people obtained Italian citizenship (+11.1% over 2009) (cf. "Citizenship").

Countries of origin

On January 1st, 2011, Romanians were the largest immigrant group, representing 21% of Italy's foreign population, followed by the Albanian community (10.6%), Moroccans (9.9%), Chinese (4.6%) and Ukrainians (4.4%) (cf. Table 4).

Number of foreign residents and percentage of total foreign residents, by gender. Top twenty countries of origin

Data at 1st January 2011

Males Females F/M*100 Total number In %
Romania 439,311529,265120968,57621.2%
Albania 259,352223,27586482,62710.6%
Morocco 254,906197,51877452,4249.9%
China 108,418101,51694209,9344.6%
Ukraine 40,617160,113394200,7304.4%
Philippines 56,55977,595137134,1542.9%
Republic of Moldova 42,99787,951205130,9482.9%
India 73,44647,59065121,0362.6%
Poland 31,41577,603247109,0182.4%
Tunisia 67,43538,85658106,2912.3%
Peru 39,31059,29315198,6032.2%
Ecuador 37,98553,64014191,6252.0%
Egypt 62,84027,5254490,3652.0%
Macedonia 50,33039,5707989,9002.0%
Bangladesh 55,64226,8094882,4511.8%
Sri Lanka 45,00736,0878081,0941.8%
Senegal 61,24219,7473280,9891.8%
Pakistan 49,58426,1365375,7201.7%
Nigeria 24,54929,06411853,6131.2%
Serbia 28,53724,4178652,9541.2%
Other countries 371,729485,536131857,26518.8%
Total first twenty nationalities 1,829,4821,883,5701033,713,05281.2%
Total foreign residents2,201,2112,369,1061084,570,317100%

Source: Elaboration by the author based on Geo-Demo Istat data

A look not at countries but regions of origin shows that immigration to Italy is predominantly European (53.4%). More than half of the foreigners from European countries residing in Italy are citizens of an EU-member-state, most of them originate from countries that have only recently joined the Union (Romania, Poland, Bulgaria); the remainder originate principally from Central and Eastern Europe (especially Albania, Ukraine, Republic of Moldova and Macedonia). The strong presence of immigrants from Central and Eastern European countries (citizens of EU and non-EU countries from this region combined represent 49.4% of all foreigners in Italy) is mainly due to the private sector's need for domestic helpers and care workers. This sector employs large numbers of foreigners from these countries.

As far as non-European countries are concerned, there is a prevalence of African citizens, mainly coming from North Africa (Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt in particular). This group represents 21.6% of Italy's foreign population. Immigrants from Asia are mostly citizens of China, the Philippines and India, representing 16.8% of the country's foreign population. 8.1% of all foreign citizens residing in Italy come from the Americas, mainly from Peru and Ecuador.

Gender distribution

The overall distribution by gender is balanced, with a slight prevalence of women, but it is strongly imbalanced within the various communities. Women dominate notably among the Polish, Ukrainians, Moldavians, Romanians, Peruvians, Ecuadorians and Filipinos, while men are in the majority among citizens of Senegal, Egypt, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Tunisia, India, Ghana, Morocco, Sri Lanka, Albania and China (cf. Table 4).

These differences are due to deeply rooted forms of segmentation by gender on the job market, as well as to different settlement patterns by nationality. The sector of personal and family services (help with children, the elderly and the sick, housework and other services, etc.) is emblematic for this phenomenon. Workers are almost exclusively female and the majority originates from countries such as the Ukraine, Poland, the Republic of Moldova, Romania, Peru, Ecuador and the Philippines. Immigrants from these countries of origin have established forms of chain migration that lead to the placement of further immigrants from the same region in the service and care sector.

Territorial distribution

Ausländische Staatsangehörige in Italien nach Herkunftsregion am 1. Januar 2011 (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

Concerning the territorial distribution of immigrants in Italy, the majority of foreigners are concentrated in the northern (61.3%) and central (25.2%) regions of the country, while only 13.5% of all immigrants reside in Southern Italy. The regions accumulating the greatest number of foreigners are Lombardy and Lazio because their metropolitan capitals Milan and Rome alone attract large numbers of immigrants. Considering not absolute numbers but the percentage of immigrants over the total population, the highest concentration of immigrants is to be found in Emilia-Romagna, where the foreign population represents 11.3% of all residents, followed by Lombardy (10.7%) and Veneto (10.2%), whereas the national average of the foreign population was 7.5% of the total population in 2011.

While large cities and municipalities are generally the most important recipients of immigrants, there are also some small Italian towns, almost all in the North of the country, where the percentage of foreigners is particularly high, in some cases reaching 33% of the city's total population. This, for instance, is the case in the Ligurian municipality of Airole (Imperia) which has about 500 inhabitants and almost one in every three residents is a foreigner.

This distribution pattern reflects the economic and productive structure of the country that is based on the diffusion of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs).

Territorial distribution differs among immigrant groups. Albanian citizens are prevalent in Apulia, the region facing the Albanian coast. The largest foreign community in Emilia-Romagna are Moroccans. Tunisians are mostly concentrated in Sicily, where they have carved out a leading part in the fishing sector. Liguria and Campania show a high density of Ecuadorians and Ukrainians while the Chinese are concentrated in cities in northern and central regions of Italy that represent industrial and manufacturing zones like, for example, Prato, near Florence, where the Chinese community constitutes about 40% of all foreign residents.

Territorial distribution mirrors the map of the foreign labour market, which is fairly segmented according to gender and ethnic origin and is maintained and supplied through migration chains.



  1. Ismu (2011a), Istat (2011).

  2. Istat (2011).

  3. Istat (2011).

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Dr. Giorgia Di Muzio studied political science and sociology at the University of Bologna. She wrote her doctoral thesis on Eastern European women in the household and care market in Italy.

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