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Italy's National Emergency with Illegal Immigrants Result of Rigid Immigration Policy

Originally published 20 March 2002

The Italian Government is expected to declare a state of nation-wide emergency in response to the arrival of 1,000 Kurdish boat people in Sicily.  Research by Dr Paolo Ruspini of the University of Warwick’s Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations believes that this reaction is a result of Italy’s rigid  immigration policies.

In his research, to be presented to an international conference being held at the University of Warwick on 22-24 March called "In Search for a New Europe: Contrasting Migratory Experiences", he shows that few of the 100,000 illegal migrants entering Italy each year hold residence or work permits but that Italy has tried to manage this by five special amnesties for illegally employed immigrants (in 1982, 1986, 1990, 1996 & 1998).

The massive scale of  illegal immigration faced by Italy results in part from Italy’s very restrictive policy towards legal entry including: strong  emphasis on border controls, increasing the number and resources of border police, stipulation of re-entry agreements, creation of compulsory detention centres to aid deportation, compulsory visas, and sanctions on "entrepreneurs" who aid  illegal entry. This highly restrictive control over legal entry means that many immigrants to Italy prefer to enter illegally rather than wait for the possibility of entering the country legally.

Where Italy differs from the UK though is in its attempts to "reabsorb" the resultant large population of undocumented illegal immigrants through a series of amnesties. In less than 20 years, Italy has had 5 such amnesties - each promoted with the intention of being the last. In 1998 250,792 applications for amnesty were made. These amnesties help Italian policy makers by:

  • Dramatically reducing the number of undocumented immigrants present in the country in order to make future repressive actions viable
  • Regulating the ratio between the official economy and the informal sector
  • Acting as an bargaining chip for governments with sectors of society that sympathise with the immigrants thus making any accompanying use of repressive measures on illegal immigration less controversial

However the irregular “stop start” nature of the amnesties means Italy see saws between periods of extreme inflexibility and openness  on illegal immigrants. Each time an amnesty is announced it also leads to sudden increased short term expenditure on staff and systems to service that particular amnesty only to abandon those expensive new systems each time an amnesty ends.

Note for Editors: The conference at which this, and much other research, will be presented is organised by the University of Warwick’s Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations in co-operation with Warsaw University’s Centre for Migration Research. It brings together leading European and US migration specialists to improve the understanding of European migration. Broadcast journalists should note that Dr Ruspini is Italian and speaks both fluent Italian and English.

For further information contact:
Dr Paolo Ruspini, Marie Curie Research Fellow
Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations
University of Warwick, Tel: 024 76 524886