A detention center for refugees and migrants in Lampedusa, Italy
© UNHCR, 2007
Show large image

A detention center for refugees and migrants in Lampedusa, Italy
© UNHCR, 2007

Show large image

© Netzwerk Migration in Europa e.V.

Show large image

Detention camps in Europe, 2005


Please find the whole article with statistics to download here: http://www.migrationeducation.org/38.1.html?&rid=240&cHash=d3d4ba9a6229552d9fe35966a74d984e

1. From a source to a destination country of migration

As it is well known, Italy has a long tradition of out-migration and it has begun receiving sizeable inflows of migrants only in the last decades: it is in 1974 that the number of immigrants coming from abroad exceeded, for the first time, the amount of Italian migrants’ expatriations.

Between 1876 and 1942 nearly 19 millions of Italians went abroad, almost half of them crossed the Ocean. The vast majority of expatriations had been recorded at the beginning of the 1900’s, until the First World War. From 1876 to 1900, a growing flux, composed by spontaneous and individual emigrations, addressed to Argentina, Brazil and United States, together with Austria-Hungary and Germany. A following phase, from 1901 to the beginning of the war, records the top number of expatriations, an average of 600thousand each year, the United States of America being the most important destinations. After the fall of the migratory flux, during the First War, a gradual growth in the number of expatriations from 1918 and 1930 and a new decrease due to the fascist anti-emigration policy, the post-war period records a growing number of expatriations until the beginning of the 1970’s, mainly directed to Germany, Belgium, France, Switzerland.

It is since the late 1980’s that numerous migrants from Third World countries and Eastern Europe, most of them unauthorised, have been entering Italy: during the late 1980s, the inflow from non-EU countries was estimated at more than 100,000 people per year. In the 1990s the foreign population grew slower, so that by 1999 migrants living in Italy, either legally or illegally, were estimated at a number between 1,300,000 and 1,500,000 people, or about 2.3% of the domestic population. Few of them entered Italy holding a residence permit. The number of permits granted to people from East European and underdeveloped countries increased substantially (from one third to 40%) after each of the five regularisation schemes, which took place in 1986, 1990, 1996, 1998 and 2002. As a consequence, after being a country of emigration for more than a century, Italy has been forced to cope with a rapid change of roles because of the coming of migration flows from various parts of the world. In only ten years – from 1992 to 2002 – foreigners have increased by 264%. In the following years migrants’ presence continued to register a frantic growth, up to more than 5 millions in 2010. It was only in 2010 that new arrivals have started to decline: in this year, the foreigners presence recorded a modest increase of 69,000 units, whereas in 2011 the augmentation was only of 27,000 units; nothing if it is compared with the hundreds of thousands which were common in the earlier years. According to most recent data and estimations made by ISMU Foundation (www.ISMU.org), the foreign population present in Italy at 1st January 2012 can be estimated at 5.4 million. But if we consider the preliminary 2011’s census data this estimation fall to 5,018,000, giving consistence to the hypothesis of a certain number of returns to the sending countries or of emigration to other destinations.

As far as the distribution on the national territory is concerned, the statistics show that foreigners with regular permits in Italy are not distributed evenly throughout the country, but they tend to concentrate in those regions which offer the greatest working opportunities. The Northwest regions record the highest number of presences (35% of the total), followed by the Northeast ones (26%), the Centre ones (25%) and the South ones (14%). On the whole, the analyses carried out confirm the existence of important territorial gaps concerning the development of the phenomenon of migration within the Italian reality but also the characters of the process of integration. First of all, this is true as regards the clear contrast between a Centre-North characterized by a presence that in average is more lasting and regular, and a South where immigration is less intense and consequently less deep-rooted. However, some contrasts may be noticed also as regards a further distinction, transversely to geographical coordinates, between large metropolitan provinces, such as Rome, Milan, but also Naples, Palermo and Bari, and the so-called “minor provinces”. While the former stand out because of relatively higher immigrants’ irregularity and density rates, the latter give sometimes the impression that the phenomenon of migrations takes “second place”, with lower irregularity levels and greater signals of taking root in the territory and in local communities.

As far as the single nationalities are concerned, the change in the structure of the foreign population by nationality clearly confirms Italy’s status as an immigration country in which flows are diversifying and are not just linked to a few countries: the number of sending countries is huge (around 200) and many of them are very distant and have never had economic or cultural relationships with Italy. Nowadays, the largest foreign group is the Romanian (more than one million), followed by the Moroccan and the Albanian ones (both around half a million), by the Chinese, Ukrainian and Filipino ones. Nevertheless the composition of the migrants’ presence in Italy has been repeatedly changing during time, augmenting the incidence of the European sending countries.

The increase of the permanently settled immigrant population is responsible for the rebalancing in the gender composition of different national groups; for the growth of the share of the foreign population under the age of 18; for the considerable increase of the numbers of marriages and above all for foreign citizens births.

Even if the gender composition of the different national groups shows the variety of migratory models (with the two extremes, among the major communities, represented by Senegal, with 75.6% of males and Ukraine, with 79.8% of females), as the years go by we can observe a re-balancing trend. In general terms a good equilibrium was already notable in 1997: males constituted 55.2% and females 44.8% of the total number of foreigners present in Italy. In 2002, a complete balance was almost reached, with males constituting less than 52% of the total.

An other interesting phenomena is represented by demographic events. Marriages in which one or both persons were foreign accounted for 13% (26,617, among those the majority – 14,799 – is represented by the unions of an Italian man with a foreign woman) of all marriages contracted in 2011 (but the divorce rate for marriages involving foreigners was twice as high).

In the second half of the 1980s the proportion of foreign children born in Italy was only 1.1% of the total number of births; this proportion has reached 4.5% in 1996, 9.4% in 2006 and 14.5% in 2011: this figure is probably the most important indicator that a significant proportion of foreigners is in the process of settlement on a permanent basis. In 2011, 105,975 new births (19.4% of the total new births) had at least one foreign parent; 21,213 an Italian father and a foreign mother and 5,501 an Italian mother and a foreign father.

The about 50,000 minors registered by the 1991 census survey rose up to 284,000 units ten years after, and further increased up to reach 502,000 units as to January 1st 2005 and 993,238 units as to January 1st 2011. Among those, the “Italians by birth” (albeit still foreigners) are half a million, representing a proportion of about 60% of the total of foreign minors.

Also the percentage of foreign minors attending the Italian school has been in uniform and constant growth. In 1983/84 there were only 6,104 pupils with a non-Italian citizenship in the Italian schools (0.06% of the total); ten years later (1993/1994) they were 37,478 (0.41% of the total); in 2003/2004 they reached the amount of 282,683 (3.49% of the total), and in 2011/2012 (the most recent data available) they reached the number of 755,939 (8.4% of the total). From the beginning of the century the yearly growth rate has not ceased to rise, sextupling over a decade. Nowadays, the phenomenon has become stable and a slower growth can be noticed. Both the higher number of foreign students (266,671) and the higher percentage on the total (9.5%) are recorded in the primary school. Moreover, if the general trend is characterized by a slowdown in the increase of students with non-Italian citizenship, there is a progressive transformation in the composition of the foreign school population, with a significant growth in the number and incidence of those born in Italy from foreign parents (who often register the same educational performances as their Italian mates) and a decrease in the number and incidence of newcomers (this latter being the most vulnerable category, needing a specific attention). Typical of the Italian context is finally the heterogeneity of nationalities. When comparing the largest groups of foreigner citizens present in the Italian schools, it emerges that the most consistent quota of minors comes from Romania with 141,050 students, followed by Albania with 102,719 students, Morocco (95,912), China (34,080), and Moldova (23,103). As for the scholastic legislation, the choice made by Italy is that of investing in interculturalism and in education to foster dialogue and coexistence within multicultural school contexts, according to the direction indicated by the European Union. The ministerial pronouncements emphasise the complementarity of directives, which include integration of foreign students and intercultural exchanges in curricular and extracurricular activities.

Finally, a crucial problem in the debate on immigration in Italy has been always represented by irregular immigration. Very rarely, however, has such a problem been dealt with the necessary instruments, which involve the availability of correct data about the real proportions of the problem itself, its structural features and distribution on the Italian territory. It was only in the late 1980s that the first official estimates, produced by ISTAT (National Institute of Statistics) concerning the phenomenon were made public. The figures referring to the irregular immigrants were estimated as running as high as 500,000: in other words, one out of two immigrants was an irregular. Such a figure was significantly reduced when the first comprehensive law on immigration came into force (law 39/90) and 220,000 new residence permits were issued as a result of the 1990 regularization. In the following years, on the basis of statisticians’ and demographers’ observations and remarks, we can reasonably believe that those regularization provisions may have had the effect of “emptying the basin” of irregularity, which was however unavoidably destined to grow again in the following years. The total amount and the characteristics of the irregular foreign population can be therefore described ex post on the basis of the number of applications submitted on the occasion of the different regularization laws (which obviously do not include all irregular migrants, but in any case a meaningful part of them). In turn, these regularization measures reflect the development of the phenomenon of migration going to Italy, through the succession of heterogeneous flows in terms of migrants’ national origins and characteristics. The predominance of migration flows from North-African and Asian countries has progressively given way, in terms of percent relevance on flow volumes, to migration waves first originating in particular from the Balkan area, and later on, from former-Soviet system countries, and also from Latin America. As we have already seen, in the 2000s the larger part of arrivals are from Romania, which has become the top country in the list of foreigners living in Italy (in this regard, we must notice that the admission of Romania into the European Union significantly contributed to reduce irregular entries and stays).

Thank to a research carried out by the ISMU Foundation of Milan on behalf of the Ministry of Labour and Social Policies during the second half of 2005, it was possible to estimate the numerousness of foreigners originating from heavy migration pressure countries (new EU member states included) without a residence permit. According to this source, irregulars totalled about 540,000 units, one fourth of which settled in the South. This area was characterized by both particularly high irregulars’ percentage (27% vs. 16% on a national scale), and by a lower presence stability. A projection of this estimation with reference to 2006 (1st July) resulted in a number of 760,000 irregular migrants, decreased to 349,000 at the beginning of 2007, thank to the large number of entry quotas admitted by the government. But it was only “thank” to the serious economic recession, and particularly to its persistence, that irregular arrivals and presences started to decline considerably: at 1st January 2012 foreigners with a non-legal status can be estimated at 326,000, 117,000 less than in 2010. They are down to 6% of the total, that is the lowest level ever observed.

2. Irregular migration

For many years, until the explosion of the economic crisis, experts and operators had shared the opinion according to which the major cause of irregular immigration is an over-restrictive admission system. This opinion was endorsed in particular by several pro-immigrant organisations, notably the Italian section of Caritas, which is universally considered one of the major actors in the field of integration. Its annual report never omitted to denounce the “prohibitionist” nature of migration policies. This position was also supported by entrepreneurial associations and organisations, which have repeatedly criticised not only the permitted entry volumes, but also the complicated admission procedures. The point is that the number of regularisation applications, averaged over, for example, the period between the 1998 and 2002 regularisations, shows that about 175,000 non-seasonal workers were requested every year, a definitely higher number than the yearly planned quotas (even if in our opinion a great deal of caution is necessary in treating regularisation applications as a meter of unanswered labour demand). Consequently, the possibilities of legally migrating to Italy seemed undersized not only in relation to the unstoppable migration pressure from abroad, but also in relation to the potential labour demand. As a matter of fact, the situation has been completely changed after the beginning of the crisis, which strongly reduced the need for imported labour.

Besides those various opinions about the quotas of migrants admitted compared to the needs of the Italian economy and about the functioning of admission policies, the problem is that the migration planning system set out by the legislature did not seem to be in a position, in spite of all the efforts made on inter-governmental co-operation, to carry out any actual deterrent function against irregular immigration. Furthermore, it did not really restrain the activities of the illegal migration industry. Irregular migration to Italy represents only a piece of a larger mosaic – such as the phenomenon of persons’ mobility – which, as everybody knows, has been assuming a planetary character and extent, with compositions and directions that have became increasingly unrelated to migration policies. Furthermore, Italy’s configuration and geographical position make it a nerve centre for illegal migration from the Mediterranean and Balkan areas, even though merely in transit to other European countries.

In the particular case of migration from east European countries – from which the largest flows have originated, especially during the 2000s, – there are many incentive factors, but migration pressure has been driven by the deep changes in these societies along with the passage to market economy. These factors also depend on economic integration with EU member countries, that has already become tangible in several ways: through a process of production unit relocation carried out by several Italian enterprises; through geographical closeness and the ability to relatively easily obtain entry visas; through the attractive power exerted by ethnic networks, which are not yet in the position to organise their co-nationals’ legal immigration on a large scale, but at the same time are still tempted to make a profit from the great amount of emigration candidates; and in the perception – especially among the female component – of a relative abundance of informal job opportunities in supporting Italian families.

On the other hand, ethnic networks play a role that goes far beyond the migration flows from eastern countries. An analysis of the results of the different regularisation provisions seems to confirm that in most cases illegal flows are generated by the same reasons that drive regular migrations and not because some national groups are particularly inclined to avoid ordinary entry procedures. Contiguity with the industry of illegal immigration and human trafficking for exploitation, calling systems on a family and community basis, and mechanisms of emulating emigrated co-nationals are some of the factors that contribute to make ethnic networks a strategic element in providing migration flows with a self-propulsive dynamics. The 2002 big regularisation made this role particularly visible: we need only think that 11% of regularisation applications were submitted by foreign employers, quite often belonging to the same community of the worker to be regularised; the Chinese community alone submitted about 23,000 regularisation applications. In the following years, the advent of a sort of “demandist” orthodoxy – according to which the mere existence of an employer, real or fake, willing to hire a migrant would determine a right to entry or to be regularized – has contributed to overestimate actual employment opportunities and to neglect the basic element of the self-propelling nature of migrations, that is to say, their tendency to become, over time, relatively independent both of law constraints, and of integration chances in the host society. Actually, the “culture of illegality” is deeply rooted in the culture of migration of many migrants’ communities living in Italy (and even in the organizational cultures of many private and public agencies that deal with immigrants), as a consequence of their ample familiarity with the black market labour [see § 3].

In reality, the major attractive factor for illegal immigration has undoubtedly been the shadow economy spreading and taking root, a phenomenon characterising the whole country, but which has some peculiar regional and sectoral features. In absolute values, the northern regions, thanks to their abundance of job opportunities, take the great majority of undocumented migrants. Nonetheless, it is in the southern regions that irregularity becomes a sort of “normal” element in an institutional development and operational model that we might define as a “widespread illegality model”. In those regions, infringements of labour regulations have structural features showing various levels of seriousness and can even lead to the establishment of “phantom” enterprises that find in illegal immigration a particularly profitable recruitment area.

In the particular case of agriculture, immigrants’ concealed labour is included in a system of mutual benefits involving employers, new immigrants and, for some aspects, local workers who enjoy public unemployment benefits. This system is encouraged by the high territorial mobility of the immigrant workforce, which during the year moves from one region to another (the “seasonal workers’ circuit”) following the calendar of fruit and vegetable production. Immigrants’ propensity to abandon this sector and move to regions that offer better-paid job opportunities constantly regenerates the demand for labour, which finds in irregular and illegal immigration a “natural” answer.

In the economically more dynamic regions, immigrants’ irregular employment is instead contiguous to a general tendency to multiply “bad jobs” and make job relations precarious, and mixed up with an impudent use of only apparently legal contractual solutions. The case of the building industry, a sector which collects a significant part of irregular immigration and employment, is particularly impressive, as this is a sector in which outsourcing logics more evidently have gone along with labour precariousness. In low-qualification services, and in the whole area of “bad jobs”, concealed labour may be described as the last stage of a dismantling action carried out on the typical institutions and rights of the société salariale, where immigrants’ labour discrimination and underpayment easily give rise to social dumping phenomena.

Because of the rigid link in law between occupational condition and residence rights, the informalisation of job relations has ended by being strictly connected with migration dynamics. On the one hand, because it has attracted new irregular flows driven by the belief that people will easily find a place in the shadow economy. On the other hand, by exposing regular immigrants to the risk of not obtaining, on expiry, a residence permit extension, the law has contributed to the social construction of irregularity, on which Italian researchers have focused for a long time. It is this strict connection sanctioned by law between job condition and residence right, sealed by the provision for a “residence contract” (contratto di soggiorno) that leads to an outcome that is just the opposite of what was expected.

Finally, we must add that a chronic lack of inspection activities and a substantial non-application of sanctions (some of a penal nature), which the law instead provides for those who employ irregular migrants, together make the law quite ineffective as a potential discouragement. This is even more valid for home help and carer jobs in families, where the decisive factors leading to irregularity mostly depend on a family need to limit the cost of those services, the urgency with which these needs reveal themselves, the ease of concealing a worker’s presence, the rarity of checks or inspections, a lack of institutionalisation, a lack of deterrent public policies, and the fact that this market represents a “normal” outlet for newcomers who come to Italy illegally or with a tourist visa: these are the major reasons that almost physiologically expose this sector to the risk of informality. On the other hand, expulsion provisions are normally used for the safeguard of public order and not as a strategic tool to fight irregular immigration and employment. This circumstance heavily affects its deterrent value, even during the stages that seem politically less “friendly” to migrants.

Notwithstanding its present dimensions, the phenomenon of irregularity has strongly influenced migrants’ relations with the institutions of the Italian society, their inclusion processes in the welfare structures (up to cause their “informalization”, that is, their actual opening also to non-entitled parties when safeguard requirements deemed fundamental are at stake), as well as the immigrants’ image spread by mass media. The formal system of rights and controls, which regulates immigration for economic and humanitarian reasons, goes along, in fact, with an informal system of employment, social support, “tolerance” towards irregular presence and labour. Furthermore, any legislator’s action aimed at renewing the juridical framework concerning immigration has unavoidably been followed by an amnesty, which has always been announced by the public authority as the last one, with the wish that the new regulations would prevent reconstructing another area of irregularity over time. A wish that clearly has not come true, since instead, the recurrence of regularization measures – together with the transformation of the planning decrees into their functional equivalent – may have actually contributed to de-legitimize the normative structure, and strengthen the belief that both the Italian borders and the Italian society are extremely “porous” with respect to irregular immigration.

The migration “normalization” process, certified by its indissoluble ties with the everyday life of the Italian society (and by the fact that it is perceived in this way by the public opinion), has ultimately kept up with a repeated resort to “exceptional” regularization actions. The number of migrants who have been “regularized” is so important as to significantly weigh not only upon the resident foreign population volume, but also upon the whole population itself. An overwhelming majority of regular migrants who live and work in Italy have been through an irregular approach with the country and by a more or less long permanence in illegal conditions. Quite often, even those who have always been regular migrants succeeded in migrating thanks to the presence of a relative who had passed to legality through an amnesty. This datum alone provides tangible evidence of the failure of sovereignty, or better, of its central manifestation, which in the contemporary international juridical paradigm is represented by control on migration flow movements. The price that the Italian society is going to pay represents a dangerous discredit of the principle of legality, with all the consequences that this implies for the social cohesion.

3. The evolution of Italian legislation

Traditionally an emigration country towards America, Australia and Northern Europe, Italy experienced a migration turning point between the late 1970s and the early 1980s, that is, during a peculiar stage of the history of international migrations, characterized by the rise of restrictive policies, and particularly, by the closing of the traditional Central-North-European destination areas. The role of historical and political factors in structuring migration flows has been by far less important than in other European countries with an earlier migration tradition. Those migration flows were in fact “spontaneous”, and migrants began to flow independently of any active recruiting policy, usually with no links with the colonial past, attracted by the relative facility with which they could enter the country and stay despite an irregular status, and by the possibility to mask the real motivations of their permanence, considering Italy’s tourist vocation. Along with offering many opportunities to include those migrants in shadow economy, this phenomenon contributed to further increase a widespread irregularity, in terms of persons’ presence and labour, and was destined to weigh for a long time upon integration processes to such an extent as to be identified as one of the distinctive features of what was later called, by some authors, the “Mediterranean immigration model”. It took several years to make Italy, as well as the other South-European countries, aware of its new role within the international migration system, and an even longer time before it recognized the existence of requirements for imported labour, considering the sudden turnabout of its demographic trends. In a situation of overall normative and institutional deficit, which characterized Italy’s migration transition, lay and religious associations and organizations acted as real substitutes for an insufficient and inadequate public intervention action (to such an extent that several scholars talk about a situation of “functional overload” in charity organizations, which were obliged to make themselves responsible also for tasks that did not concern them).

Juridical vagueness has thus become a basic element in the structure of the relations between immigrants and Italian society. In fact, the first law on immigration dates back to 1986, that is, more than ten years after the “turning point” of 1974 (the year in which, as we have seen, for the first time the number of incoming foreigners exceeded that of the Italians who emigrated abroad). Law 943/1986, besides establishing an entry and access mechanism to the labour market (which however remained substantially not enforced), granted equal protection to Italian and foreign workers, and acknowledged to the latter a few social rights, including the right to family reunifications. Broader was the reach of the so-called “Martelli Law” (Law 39/1990), which besides introducing a yearly flow planning system, also laid down some regulations concerning foreigners’ legal protection, expulsion, asylum, and self-employment.

The first organic set of rules came only in 1998, through the passing of the “Napolitano-Turco” Law (Law Decree 286/98), which was also the fruit of the pressures of third-sector institutions and civil society. In countertendency with the juridical frame prevailing in Europe in those years, this law acknowledged, along with pull factors in the sending countries, also the existence of attraction elements strictly connected with Italy’s economic requirements for imported workforce, by providing for a special mechanism aimed at determining every year the required incoming immigration quotas for labour purposes (in addition to the flows for family or humanitarian reasons, which are unpredictable and cannot be planned). Apart from those reasons, these measures are based on four fundamental principles, which describe the “Italian integration model” (according to the definition formulated by the Commission for Integration instituted by the Government):

a. Interaction based on security: the law provides for a set of tools aimed at combating irregular immigration, carrying out expulsions, fighting criminality and human being trafficking;

b. Safeguard of personal rights extended to irregular migrants: the law provides for compulsory education granted to all foreign children, regardless of their residence title; in addition, it guarantees essential healthcare also to irregular migrants and introduces a residence permit issued for social protection purposes in order to safeguard the victims of trafficking;

c. Regular migrants’ integration: the law ratifies the same civil and social rights as those granted to Italian citizens, acknowledges the right to family reunifications and introduces the institution of a residence paper (carta di soggiorno, a permanent right to stay in the country), which can be obtained by those who have achieved a residence seniority in Italy of five years at least;

d. Pluralism and communication: the law respects cultural differences also through the safeguard of the language and the culture of the country of origin; at the same time, it acknowledges the right to literacy; finally, it provides for the involvement of voluntary organizations in carrying out integration policies.

The integration model outlined by the legislator shows considerable openings to social rights, but a substantial closure in terms of political rights. In addition, an anachronistic law on citizenship, passed in 1992 and based on the descent principle, emphasizes the “familistic” and abscriptive characteristics of the Italian model. Because of the legislation in force and the functioning of the procedures, the grant of citizenship (except for the case of marriage) requires very long implementation times both for immigrants and for their children. Moreover, the procedures in this regard are still rather uncertain. Face to face with a growing stabilised migrant population, there are several million adults permanently residing in Italy without any political right and destined to remain in this condition for a long time.

Actually, the most relevant limits do not refer so much to the text of the law, but rather to its actual enforcement. The debate which preceded and followed the passing of the Consolidated Act was monopolized by the theme of security, meant both as border controls and as fight against criminality attributed to foreigners, as well as by a very strong media exposure of the whole migration question. Those circumstances diverted the public opinion’s attention from some qualifying aspects of this law, such as the introduction of a residence paper, implemented however with great delay, and the norms concerning fight against discrimination, which from a certain point of view, “go beyond” the directions of the European Union (insofar as they extend the principle of equal treatment also to citizens from third countries). Along with the well-known farrago and ineffectiveness of the Italian bureaucracy – made even more evident by the impact with migrants – several researchers have noticed in norm application an excessive administrative discretion, and quite often, a considerable territorial diversification in the treatment reserved by the public administration to immigrants, further increased by an operators’ and managers’ insufficient information and sensitization action. The number of convictions concerning crimes with racial discrimination purposes is negligible, for the time being, also because foreigners, and particularly irregular migrants, tend for different reasons not to denounce the episodes, quite often committed by other foreign subjects, of which they are the victims. This turns also into a lack of a sufficiently abundant case law to which reference can be made. Furthermore, the establishment of a contact centre against racial discrimination at the President’s Office of the Council of Ministers does not seem to have had an impact as significant as that of similar services implemented in other countries. Finally, by analyzing migrants’ inclusion processes, the consequences of the peculiarities of the Italian welfare system cannot be neglected, since its strongly “familistic” characterization penalizes the subjects who cannot rely on the support of family and neighbouring ties. Therefore, the right to equal treatment granted to foreign and Italian subjects in acceding any resource and social opportunity clashes with a situation of widespread discrimination (especially as regards some sectors of society, such as the real-estate market) and with a socially shared expectation that a privileged access to resources and opportunities should be reserved to the local population. Consequently, if on the one hand, Italian citizens have become increasingly aware of the usefulness of immigrant labour, on the other hand, they are still convinced that Italians are those who are first entitled to benefit from certain rights and services.

For some aspects, the “Bossi-Fini” Law, passed in 2002, has acknowledged these subordinate incorporation expectations by:

a. limiting entry possibilities (through abolition of entry possibilities aimed at allowing migrants to go in search of a job, reintroduction of the principle of local workforce unavailability aimed at filling some jobs for which an authorization to a foreigner’s entry is required, restriction of the criteria regulating family reunifications);

b. introducing some restrictions concerning immigrants’ permanence, which in any case results more strictly bound to being in possession of a job contract (besides the abolition of entries aimed at allowing migrants to go in search of a job, this law has also reduced residence permit duration – particularly in the case of unemployment);

c.increasing penalties and measures aimed at fighting irregular immigration, through the introduction of a new kind of crime in the case of a further migrant’s irregular entry in the Italian territory after expulsion, the provision for forced expulsion in case of irregular permanence, the extension of “administrative detention” (which may arrive to 60 days).

Finally, in 2008 the Government included new amendments in the so-called security package (pacchetto sicurezza), which identified a new kind of crime (so-called “reato di clandestinità”) consisting in illegal entry/residence in the territory of State and extended to 18 months the period of detention in special centres (CIE – Centres for Identification and Expulsion) waiting for the migrant’s actual compulsory expulsion. These new rules provoked a sharp debate and were accused to infringe some fundamental human rights; actually, they were revised in 2011 following a pronouncement of the European Court of Justice.

According to our opinion, one of the most vulnerable point in the juridical regulations on immigration still in force consists in the distance between the norms that regulate entries for labour purposes and the actual procedures through which usually migrants’ economic inclusion is carried out. Despite the troubled preparation process undergone by the entry management system in force, and the important number of granted authorizations (quotas) over time, which has made Italy one of the major countries officially importing workforce, still there is a worrisome gap between granted authorizations and actual number of immigrants who enter every year the Italian labour market without holding a residence permit in the position to allow them working regularly.

According to several researchers and key informants, this gap is the outcome of three different factors: a) a quota restriction policy, which has resulted undersized not only in relation to the migration pressure from abroad, but also to the requirements declared by the economic system; b) law procedures that scarcely reconcile themselves with the urgency characteristics through which the demand for workforce reveals itself, and in general, with the procedures through which labour demand and offer meet within a post-Fordist economic system, where labour demand is pulverized and a relevant share of imported labour offer is absorbed by families and micro-production units; c) above all, spreading and rootedness of shadow economy, which represents an enormous absorption reservoir for immigrants’ concealed labour, disregarding the effect of further increasing it, related to migration dynamics themselves (considering that, according to the Italian law, the possibility to be regularly employed is excluded for those who are not in possession of a valid and effective residence permit) (cf. § 2).

Furthermore, the years before the beginning of the crisis coincided with the advent of a sort of “demandist” orthodoxy: as we have already observed, besides other consequences, it has contributed to underestimate the migrations’ tendency to become, over time, relatively independent both of law constraints, and of integration chances in the host society. Not surprisingly, the job applications submitted on the occasion of the last flows decrees – after the beginning of the crisis – seem to have lost any correspondence with the actual size of imported workforce requirement. Their number and characteristics (considering the difficult economic phase) are sufficient to prove the artificial character of most of the alleged demand for immigrant labour, as well as the inevitable disadvantage suffered by those candidates who wish to comply with the legal procedures, patiently waiting for the approval of a decree to plan their entry into Italy.

Conclusively, the serious employment crisis has removed the veil of hypocrisy that has always accompanied the “planning of the admissions”: while formally aimed at addressing the needs of the economy, the planning decrees quickly turned out to be functional equivalents of amnesties and, more recently, instruments to grant legal entry under the justification of fictitious employment relationships simulated by friends and fellow-countrymen or bought at a high price in the criminal market. To summarize, the recession gave the coup de grace to a legislative framework that has not met any of its objectives; certainly not that of preventing illegal arrivals, but neither that of satisfying the needs of the employers, nor, even less, that of managing the flow of workers from abroad in accordance with a plan aimed at enhancing the competitiveness of enterprises and to guarantee social cohesion.

4. The insertion in the labour market

As it is well known, between the late 1960s and the early 1970s, the major European destination countries put an end to active recruitment policies. The oil shock in 1973 marked the definitive conclusion of the previous stage: from then onwards, migrations began to put on the character of “undesired” presences, either tolerated or rejected, depending on circumstances, but in any case increasingly less legitimated by economic needs. Immigration, more and more manifestly not depending on planning policies any longer, began to be depicted as an emergency from which European societies have to defend themselves. It was actually during that period, dominated by restrictive policies and spontaneous migrant flows, that South-European countries, at the head of which was Italy, began their transformation into destination areas for heterogeneous flows arrived out of any active recruitment policy, and destined to be introduced in the numerous niches of an economy that just in that period knew its transition to post-Fordism.

The particular stage in which Italy knew its migratory transition did considerably weigh upon the analyses dedicated to this theme. In the other European countries, immigration had been studied as an industrial phenomenon, which involved themes and problems connected to class relations and industrial clash, identification processes with the working class, the relationship between local and immigrant workers, trade union actions, social mobility strategies, and social movements. The social integration of immigrants and of their families, and all the problems associated with inter-ethnic coexistence started to attract the attention of both researchers and governmental authorities at a later stage, as soon as immigration began to transform itself from a substantially economic matter into a political one. To some extent, in the Italian case this process was opposite, since the economic functionality of immigration was far from being taken for granted. Thanks to the first studies, carried out in several local realities, it was possible to outline a map, albeit fragmentary and incomplete, of immigrant work. From the Tunisians employed in the fishing industry at Mazara del Vallo (Sicily) to the thousands of seasonal labourers working in the Mediterranean agricultural industry, from the street vendors wandering from the Salento to the Romagna Riviera to the large crowds of women working as domestic helpers in the cities, and so on, up to the first experiments of immigrants’ inclusion in some industrial districts in Emilia Romagna and their early entrepreneurial activity forms. The first two regularizations, launched respectively in 1986 and 1990, allowed the emergence of dozen of thousands work relations, but most of all allowed newly regularized workers to gain access to the opportunities that in the meantime had opened in the Italian labour market, or more precisely, in the northern part of the country. In confirmation of the chronic dualism characterizing the national economy, researchers identified that a mobility process inside the country was in progress, following the direction of the 1950s and 1960s migrations from the south to the north of the country. Provinces such as Bergamo, Brescia, Modena, Reggio Emilia, Verona, Vicenza, Trento, Treviso (besides, obviously, Milan), characterized by a widespread economic welfare, unemployment rates much below the national average, a growing access to secondary and tertiary education, thus making workers’ turnover increasingly problematic. And just in those local realities a peculiar integration model began to take shape (along with the typical urban model, characterized by a prevalence of the tertiary industry providing services to enterprises and families and by a marked foreign presence “feminization”), whose ideal-type figure is the immigrant worker employed in small and medium enterprises, particularly in the metal-mechanical and building industries. On the basis of those empirical evidences, several authors identified different territorial models of immigrants’ integration, where immigration was assumed as a sort of “litmus test” of the peculiar characteristics of local labour markets. The second significant heritage of that season is the idea of complementarity between local and immigrant labour force, an idea almost unanimously shared by researchers despite the persisting employment difficulties for an absolutely non-negligible share of the Italian labour force, and motivated referring to the growing autonomy of the domestic labour supply.

The idea of complementarity will begin a sort of axiom in the analysis of migrants’ role in the Italian labour market. In any case, to understand phenomena that have been increased far beyond all expectations, it is necessary to take into account some characters of Italian economic system:

-  The very high incidence of non-qualified and manual workers within the employment and the new hirings. In all advanced economies, the advent of the service society had stimulated the growth of non-qualified jobs – often “bad jobs” – largely filled by migrant workers. But in Italy this demand is also fed by traditional sectors, and it often concerns skilled manual workers, even more difficult to recruit. Heavy jobs, mobility depending on building yard transfer, exposure to climatic/environmental conditions, relative job uncertainty, represent the major factors, which drive young Italians away from the building industry, even those who are not in possession of any training credit, and generate a strong demand for migrants to be employed as masons, manual workers, carpenters, and assemblers: actually, foreigners’ employment in the building sector is more than twice as high as Italians’. In the metal and mechanical industry, well-known are the recruitment problems deriving from the disaffection with factory work shown by the new generations entering the labour market: actually, a large part of predicted hiring of migrants concerns skilled workers, plant operators and unskilled personnel;

-  The Italian model of social protection that, as it is known, represents the “familistic” variant of welfare regimes. Having to face the growing care demand determined by the population’s ageing process, Italian families have increasingly resorted to migrant workers (largely female), to the point to give birth to a “parallel welfare” whose dimensions are larger than those of the national health system. Migrants’ role in feeding this segment of the labour market is attested by their percentage out of the total number of house-help workers registered by Inps (National Institute for Social Security), that touched 75% in 2002 and continued growing in the following years;

-  The employers’ tendency to address themselves to migrant workers to fill jobs already characterized by their presence. Together with the autonomous and self-propulsive initiative of migrant workers – who enter the labour market largely using ethnicized channels – this tendency have contributed to stigmatize some kind of occupations, subsequently labelled as “migrants’ jobs”, without necessarily reflect real recruiting difficulties. This process contributes to reinforce the ethnicisation of the labour market (involving the risk of migrants’ occupational segregation and wage discrimination), but also to erect material and symbolic barriers which obstruct the access to these jobs by the Italian workers still available. The most eloquent case is represented by persons assigned to cleaning services, the job profile that, in collective imagination, represents the example par excellence of a low social prestige job;

-  The growing number of self-employed migrants and entrepreneurs, a process which has counterbalanced, in recent years, the progressive reduction of Italian independent workers. At the source of this phenomenon there are several different reasons, which may refer both to a particular propensity, shown by some groups to self-employment and to the emerging new structure of opportunity. The traditional spreading of self-employment, one-man businesses and micro-firms in the Italian reality, the general drop in earning capacity involving many activities (which has diverted the interest of local entrepreneurs in them), the need for a generation turnover depending on the fact that many artisans and self-employed workers have become well on in years, the growth of an outlet market formed by migrants themselves, the interest shown by some Italian consumers’ segments in “exotic” products, are all factors that may have encouraged the development of self-employment among migrants. Along with these factors, we should consider also some structural changes that are at the base of the emerging new metropolitan economies, and of the resulting springing up of firms operating in the area of retail trade, food (shops and restaurants), cleaning services, transports, house upkeep services, and so on, and in the second place, in the spreading of outsourcing logics, which have strengthened the need to have available a network of small suppliers to which less profitable activities can be left. The self-employment phenomenon should be therefore interpreted also in the light of the labour market changes that have gradually made the boundaries of self-employment, subordinate employment and unemployment more permeable and indefinite than in the past. Most firms established by migrants are in fact one-man businesses that, to simplify, might in some circumstances represent a sort of functional equivalent of the resort to atypical contracts. The adaptability of first-generation migrants, but also their juridical vulnerability, may contribute to explain their peculiar “propensity” to set up businesses on their own, although the boundaries between their search for greater autonomy and their subjection to the terms imposed by customers can be however hardly traced out.

There are no doubts that the massive inclusion of immigrant workforce is one of the major elements characterizing the changes occurred in the last decades in the Italian labour market. Since the beginning of the 1990s, the number of both active and employed migrant workers have been continuously growing, conferring to the Italian labour market a more and more evident multi-ethnic composition.

This growth hasn’t been broken up even during the present economic recession. The impact of the crisis on immigration has proved to be more soft than in other countries, thus revealing the peculiarities but also the weakness of the Italian labour market. Suffice to observe that, from 2005 to 2012, employed migrants had almost doubled, and during the most acute phases of the crisis, the overall employment has increased thanks solely to the foreign component. The additional foreign employment that has been produced in these turbulent years amounts to over one million; i.e., a volume significant enough to force us to face the question of its consequences for the Italian workforce. What is certain is that the substantial need for foreign labour expressed by Italian families – for tasks decidedly unattractive to most of the native labour force – is not enough by itself to account for the extraordinary absorption capacity demonstrated by Italian economy.

In order to explain migrants’ occupational performance we can suggest that the law quality which is a distinctive mark of migration in Italy, has contributed “to protect” migrants. Actually, despite some initial signals towards a qualitative labour improvement and up-grading, the crisis ended up in a downward realignment of the employment structure, the deterioration of the overall employment quality and a growth in the number of low-salaried jobs. By affecting mainly low-skill occupations and more traditional sectors, the new jobs created exacerbated the traditional forms of segregation by gender and nationality. Actually, the distribution of employed workers by occupation clearly demonstrates migrants’ segregation in the lowest levels of the jobs’ hierarchy in all the years for which data are available.

Employed foreigners’ distribution outlines an overall picture characterized by substantial immobility. Certainly, at an individual level, there are several examples of upward mobility processes, which take shape as migratory seniority grows, and outline the paths to emulate. However, at a general level, the needs expressed by firms and families seem to unavoidably reroute foreign labour towards those segments which are already widely characterized by its presence and which, in some cases, satisfy the need to cover jobs deserted by Italian workers (such as it happens in the typical case of home-caretakers). In this situation, the deskilling of well educated migrants has soon emerged as a distinctive trait of the Italian experience, which has been confirmed by all the following inquiries: just to cite an example, according to the “Immigrant Citizens Survey” (May 2012), the percentage of employed immigrants who believe that their main job does not require the level of skills or training that they have is decidedly most significant in the two Italian towns than in all the other European cities involved in the research; furthermore, the percentage that have applied for recognition of qualifications, is in Italy dramatically lower than that recorded in the other countries.

Conclusively, it should has be noted that the context in which the present discipline on immigration took its first steps significantly changed. It is not by chance that some concerns about the competition immigration might exert mostly towards the weaker segments of local labour offer, which have long remained asleep due to a sort of exaltation of the idea of complementarity, have begun to become manifest. As it already happened in other national experiences, the immigration issue started to feed new conflicts and disclose the difficulty to find solutions in the position to combine different claims: altruistic claims, that is, those coming from large areas of civil society, which however sometimes seem to undervalue the consequences in the medium-long term of an inflow of a highly adaptable labour force such as the immigrant one; claims from the enterprise world, which is scarcely inclined to do without the benefits that resorting to immigrants’ labour indisputably brings about, particularly – or perhaps, chiefly – in a difficult economic period, when the need to improve work productivity by limiting costs becomes increasingly urgent; and finally, the claims of the social categories that might be more penalized by immigration, as their voice ends up by being represented by political and social “anti-immigrant” forces. The priority that till now has been given to the issue of entry selection should therefore give way to a reflection on the most suitable way to manage migrants’ impact on the labour market and to valorise their potential through the recognition of their skills and competences, through the promotion of their role as a driving force for the internationalization of local and national economies, and, last but not least, through the adoption of strategies of human resource administration inspired by the perspective of cross-cultural management. But, first of all, it is indispensable to rethink the idea of integration, which until today has been strongly unbalanced towards the purely working dimension, by promoting a fuller and more equilibrate conception of migrants’ membership in the Italian society.


ISMU Foundation, Italian Reports on Migrations, various years (www.ismu.org)

Laura Zanfrini, Professore Ordinario del Dipartimento di Sociologia, Università Cattolica del S. Cuore, Milan (Italy)

June 2013