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Migration and Migration Policy in Italy | Southern Europe |

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Migration and Migration Policy in Italy

Dr. Claudia Finotelli

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Italy has turned into a country of immigration in the 1970s and 1980s. Despite high irregularity rates during years, it has reached the status of a mature immigration country with increasing numbers of migrants with permanent residency.

The Italian Coast Guard transports migrants and refugees from the island of Lampedusa to Porto Empedocle on the mainland. Irregular migration to Italy regularly makes headlines. However, an increasing number of immigrants now have permanent residency rights in Italy. (© picture-alliance,

Italy became a “new” immigration country during the 1970s and 1980s, after having been an emigration country for decades. Nevertheless, the lion’s share of immigration to Italy has occurred since the year 2000; the percentage of the foreign population rose from two percent that year to 7.5 percent by 2013. In 2021, foreign residents represented around 8.4 percent of the total population. On 1 January 2020, 10.3 percent of Italy's population were foreign-born. Most of the immigrant population in Italy is from Europe (50.2 percent) followed by Africa (21.8 percent) and Asia (20.6 percent). The net migration rate is positive, even though data for 2019 show a considerable increase in people leaving the country (+14,4 percent) compared to 2018.

Italy’s first decades of being an immigration country were characterized by weak border controls and increasing structural demand for foreign labor. Inadequate immigration legislation, together with growing immigration numbers and an expanding informal economy, prompted an increase in irregular migration. To solve the problem of irregular migration, various Italian governments carried out five mass regularization processes between 1986 and 2002, which contributed to regularizing about 1.4 million migrants. In addition to the use of regularizations, Italian governments made significant efforts to improve external border controls and recruitment procedures for foreign workers. However, polarized political debate, unevenly developed administrative structures, and weak implementation capacities limited the efficiency of labor recruitment instruments, which contributed to an increase the number of irregular migrants working in the informal economy. As a result, Italian governments again had to resort to regularization procedures in 2009, 2012, and 2020, the last of which has been ongoing due to major delays in the evaluation procedure of the regularization applications. The efforts to make labor recruitment more efficient went along with a moderate improvement of border controls and the reception system for refugees and asylum seekers. Bilateral agreements with transit countries such as Libya (2016 and 2017), despite their questionable human rights approach, have contributed to decreasing the number of migrants landing on Italian coasts, while the reception system of asylum seekers has made notable progress through the creation in 2002 of the National Protection System for Asylum Seekers and Refugees (SPRAR), which was renamed into Reception and Integration System (SAI) in 2020.

New immigrants by and large have enjoyed good levels of labor market integration, mainly based on complementarity between immigrants and natives in local labor markets. Interestingly, negative labor market dynamics after the Great Recession of 2009 do not seem to have negatively affected the stability of residence rights for foreign workers living in Italy. In 2020, most non-EU nationals with the right of residence in Italy (63 percent) held long-term residence permits which de facto corresponds to a permanent resident status. Though disaggregated data on the duration of residence permits is unfortunately only available dating back to 2011, it is worth noting that the number and share of long-term residence permits have increased continuously over the last nine years.

Foreign nationals in Italy by type of residence permit. (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

In the last decade, Italian legislation has strengthened the opportunities to secure residence for holders of temporary residence permits and thus to avoid large-scale increases in irregularity. More specifically, the time a migrant is allowed to remain in Italy to find new employment after losing a job was extended to twelve months, while migrants with a permit for humanitarian reasons were also granted the possibility to obtain a residence permit for work reasons if they found a job.

The acquisition of long-term resident status represents a valid alternative to naturalization in terms of guarantees of a secure residence status. In fact, Italy’s citizenship law is considered one of the most restrictive comparatively speaking due to the long period of residence required for naturalization (ten years) and the restrictive approach towards the naturalization of foreign children born and raised in Italy. Despite this, naturalizations have continued to increase in the last ten years, and Italy’s naturalization rate as a percentage is currently higher (2.5 percent) than the EU average (2.0 percent). Overall, this data shows that Italy has reached a status as a mature immigration country with a largely stable immigrant population. This notwithstanding, the liberal reform of the Italian citizenship law certainly represents one of the major challenges facing Italian governments in the near future.

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is currently Associate Professor at the Department of Applied Sociology of the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and member of the International Migration Studies Group at the same university. Her research interests cover the areas of migration control and citizenship with a special focus on Southern Europe.