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Irregular Migration | Italy |

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Irregular Migration

Dr. Giorgia Di Muzio

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Irregular Migration has always been a crucial problem in the debate on immigration in Italy, because the issue of and thus the discourse on immigration is strongly influenced by a strong presence of irregular migrants on Italian territory.

"Clandestine" immigrants and "irregular" immigrants

The Italian law distinguishes between irregular immigration and clandestine immigration, a distinction which is based on the status of the immigrant at the time of entry into the country. "Clandestine" immigrants entered Italy without a required entry visa while "irregular" immigrants are individuals who entered the country with a valid visa which they then overstayed, whereby their stay becomes illegal. Most illegal immigrants in Italy fall under the category of "irregular" immigration. This phenomenon seems to be so widespread that some researchers believe that almost all migrants from non-EU member states residing in Italy have lived illegally in the country for at least a certain period of time.

Landings on Italian coasts

Special attention has been dedicated to the landing of immigrants - in many cases refugees – on Italy's coast since they are considered clandestine at the moment of their arrival given that they do not possess of the necessary legal entry documents.

Number of landings on Italian shores compared with numbr of requests for internal protection (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

The first decade of this century saw landings of African and Asian clandestine immigrants on the coasts of Sicily (especially from Iraq, Liberia, Sudan, Morocco, Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia) - between 2007 and 2008 Italy recorded more than 57,000 arrivals by sea. These numbers decreased in the following years. New waves of arrivals where then recorded with the outbreak of the so-called "Arab Spring" in 2011. Immigrants arriving by boat on the coast of Sicily and the Island of Lampedusa mostly originated from Tunisia and Libya. In 2011 alone, more than 50,000 refugees came to Italy via these routes (cf. "Refuge and Asylum"). Yet, many immigrants did not even reach the Italian coast but lost their lives at sea.

Size of the irregular immigrant population

Evaluating the true dimension of irregularity is not easy. Estimations rely on the number of cases discovered in the context of regularization procedures, and on other kinds of indirect sources such as research on illegal work carried out by the Ministry of Labour. Recent research done by ISMU (Initiatives and Studies on Multiethnicity) comes to the conclusion that on January 1st, 2011 about 443,000 irregular migrants were living in Italy, a slight decrease as compared to the previous year (454,000) and a strong decrease as compared to 2008, when they were estimated to be 651,000. The number of illegal immigrants, in fact, varies enormously from year to year. This fluctuation does not only stem from the actual influx of new irregular immigrants but also depends on regularization programs, changes in the legal status of those who legally stayed in Italy for a certain period of time but then overstayed their visa and thus became irregular migrants, and consequences of EU-enlargement. The drop in the number of persons being illegally present on Italian territory registered after 2008, for example, might be interpreted in the light of the entry of Romania and Bulgaria into the European Union the previous year.


Regularization of illegal immigrants is a structural part of Italy's migration policy. From the Eighties up to the present day, Italian governments have undertaken five big regularization programs, so-called sanatorie (1986, 1990, 1995, 1998 and 2002), granting legal status to over 1,400,000 foreign citizens. The sanatoria of 2002, under the "Bossi-Fini" Law, alone allowed more than 630,000 migrant workers to emerge from illegality. In terms of numbers it might be considered the most important regularization program ever carried out in Italy.

Amnesties as a means of retrospective immigration management are typical for Mediterranean countries and are subject to controversial political debates. It is important to point out that regularization cannot be deemed to substitute coherent migration policies for various reasons. First, it only grants a temporary legal status or document (residence permit) to migrants. This status or document is subject to annual renewal that is reapproved on the basis of specific requirements, such as employment and accommodation. It is possible that a migrant who was able to regularize his status falls back into irregularity if he cannot meet these prerequisites necessary to renew his residence permit. Second, equal access to regularization programs is not guaranteed. In fact, only those migrants can take advantage of a regularization program who have an employment contract and thus a regular job. Last, regularization programs seem to induce a chain reaction, encouraging more illegal immigration by instilling into the collective migrant imagination the idea that – once on Italian soil - it will be possible to sooner or later regularize one's status.

In a nutshell, those programs undertaken by Italian governments, have, on the one hand, brought many immigrants out of illegality, but are, on the other hand, simply an acknowledgement of the ineffectiveness of existing migration policies and the failure to design foresightful strategies to regulate entries and reception of immigrants. Regularization can thus be regarded as a kind of "emergency" management. As long as the Italian economy calls for cheap and flexible labor the phenomenon of irregular migration, comprising illegal entries, the absence of a valid visa or residence permit and illicit employment, will keep on playing a central role with regard to immigration in Italy.



  1. Arango/Finotelli (2009), Caponio/Colombo (2005).

  2. According to estimations of "Fortress Europe" since 1994 6,226 people died or were missing in the Strait of Sicily along the routes that go from Libya (from Zuwarah, Tripoli and Misratah), Tunisia (Sousse, Mahdia and Chebba) and Egypt (in particular the area of Alexandria) to the islands of Lampedusa, Pantelleria, Malta and the southeastern coast of Sicily. 1,822 of them only in 2011.

  3. Ismu (2011a).

  4. Arango/Finotelli (2009). To these must be added that of 2009, exclusively for domestic workers and care workers, which resulted in about 295,000 applications (see Integration Policy Index II, 2011).

  5. Caponio/Colombo (2005).

  6. Arango/Finotelli (2009) , Cnel (2008), Sciortino (2006).

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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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