New legislation regulates immigration

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New legislation to regulate immigration into Italy came into force in August 2002, and a decree on procedures for regularising the situation of illegal immigrants already in the country was adopted in September. The centre-right government's new immigration legislation has been criticised by both trade unions and employers' organisations.

Italy has seen important inward migration during the past 20 years. Given its position in the centre of the Mediterranean, and with over 8,000 kilometres of coastline, Italy is considered the most accessible entrance to Europe by many migrants.

On 31 December 2000, the official figure for the number of non-EU citizens in Italy stood at over 1.2 million (691,311 men and 545,044 women). Moroccans are the most numerous immigrants (112,614 men and 46,985 women), followed by Albanians (91,144 men and 50,922 women), Romanians (35,345 men and 33,584 women), Tunisians and Senegalese (more than 40,000 immigrants each). The number of immigrants is highest in the Centre of Italy (4% of the population), followed by the North (3.1%), the South (1.2%) and the islands (1.2%).

The economic gaps between the various areas of Italy are also reflected in the way in which migrants have entered the labour market. In the North, especially in the northern-eastern regions, where the unemployment rate is very low, immigrants work mainly in industrial activities and are employed in more or less regular positions. In the South, non-EU workers are employed, in the majority of cases, in seasonal work and in the clandestine underground economy, particularly in the agriculture and building sectors. Many immigrant workers, especially women, are employed in domestic work or as home-help for old or disabled people.

Besides legal immigrants, who have a regular residence permit, there are numerous illegal immigrants, whose number is hard to quantify. According to Caritas (the agency of the catholic church which assists immigrants) there are about 1 million illegal immigrants in Italy. Their position means that some of these people may be perceived as being engaged in criminal activities such as drug-pushing, prostitution and petty crime. Some commentators believe that this situation, which applies especially in large cities, has led a part of the population to have intolerant attitudes towards immigrants, fuelled and exploited by some political parties such as the Lega Nord.

Previous attempts at regulation

The first attempt at regularising and integrating immigrants in Italy was launched at the beginning of the 1990s through Law 39/90 (the so-called 'Martelli law'). The objective of this law was to plan migratory flows into Italy in collaboration with the immigrants' countries of origin. In 1998, the centre-left government issued Law 40/98 (the so-called 'Turco-Napolitano law') which was an attempt to regularise the position of non-EU immigrants and improve their integration. This law established intricate procedures for the deportation of illegal immigrants who, once arrested by the police, could eventually be deported only after their case was judged by a magistrate. After the magistrate issued an order of deportation, the illegal immigrant had two weeks to appeal against the decision. In many cases, immigrants reportedly often used this time to go underground.

The centre-right coalition made the perceived failings of the immigration legislation an issue during its successful campaign for the May 2001 general election. Since it has been in power, the centre-right government has made the immigration issue a priority and has issued a law which regulates immigration and a decree on the 'regularisation' of immigrants already living in Italy.

Immigration law

Law No. 189 of 30 July 2002, known as the 'Bossi-Fini law' after the names of the politicians who proposed it, amends the 1998 immigration law and introduces new clauses. The most significant aspects of the law are as follows:

  • each year, before 30 November, the Prime Minister will lay down the number of non-EU workers who can be admitted into Italy in the following year;
  • there are no limitations to entry into Italy for highly-skilled workers (university lecturers and professors, professional nurses etc);
  • other non-EU immigrants will be allowed entry into Italy only if they have a 'residence contract' (contratto di soggiorno) - ie a contract of dependent employment signed by an employer (a firm or a family) and the immigrant worker. The contract must provide for accommodation and the payment of travel expenses for the workers to return to their country of origin. Italian embassies and consulates will issue entry visas only on these conditions. When the contract expires, the immigrant worker must return to the country of origin;
  • a specific immigration office is be set up in each province of Italy to oversee the entire recruitment procedure for immigrant workers on both open-ended and fixed-term contracts. Employers are able to recruit specific immigrant workers 'by name' or from lists of immigrant workers held by Italian embassies and consulates abroad;
  • the new offices will also deal with applications for non-EU citizens to enter Italy for purposes of family reunification. Only non-EU immigrants with a regular residence permit will be entitled to present this kind of application with regard to their family members. Only 'first degree' relatives will be admitted - spouses, children and parents over 65 years of age with no other form of support;
  • residence permits issued for reasons of employment will last for a maximum of two years, even if the worker concerned has an open-ended contract of employment. In these cases, the immigrant workers must request a further temporary residence permit on the expiry of the old one;
  • when their residence permit is issued, immigrant workers must provide their fingerprints;
  • after six years of regular residence in Italy, non-EU citizens with the necessary economic requisites to sustain themselves and their families will be able to receive a form of permanent permit instead of a temporary residence permit;
  • irregular immigrants will be deported and accompanied to Italy’s borders. Deportation will be immediate and will not be suspended even if the immigrant appeals to the courts;
  • suspected illegal immigrants stopped by the police will be taken to specific centres controlled by the police. The authorities will try to discover their identity during the following 60 days. If they are found to be illegal immigrants, they will be ordered to leave the country within five days (a period they must spend in the centre). If they fail to do so, the illegal immigrants will be arrested for between six months and a year or deported and accompanied to the borders. If illegal immigrants return to Italy, they will be arrested and tried by the courts;
  • non-EU minors living in Italy will obtain a residence permit once they reach adult age (18 years ) provided that they already have lived in Italy for at least three years and have attended a social and civil integration programme provided by a public or private organisation. This organisation must also guarantee that they have accommodation and attend school or go to work. The number of residence permits issued on these conditions will be subtracted from the pre-defined number of total annual permits; and
  • for irregular immigrants already in Italy, the law provides for an amnesty which will allow the regularisation of the position of those who have worked and lived in Italy for at least three months.

The new law came into force on 26 August 2002.

Decree on regularisation

A decree-law issued by the cabinet on 6 September 2002 provides for the regularisation of the position of two types of irregular immigrant workers: those employed as domestic workers and home-helper; and dependent workers involved in other kinds of subordinate employment. Immigrants whose residence permits have expired will also be able to regularise their situation, provided that they have not received a deportation order. All regularised immigrants workers will receive a residence permit with a duration equal to the duration of their employment contract, but in any case no longer than two years.

The requirements that immigrant workers in dependent employment must meet in order to qualify for regularisation are as follows:

  • the worker must have been employed by a company for at least three months;
  • the employer must commit itself to hiring the worker on an open-ended contract, or on a fixed-term contract lasting at least one year;
  • the employer must pay the workers at least EUR 700 per month, plus EUR 100 in expenses; and
  • within 10 days of the submission of the application for regularisation and of the relevant documentation (which can be done through the post office) to the prefecture or the police headquarters, the employer and the worker will be called by the local prefecture for a meeting to sign the relevant papers.

For domestic workers and home-helpers, the requirements are as follows:

  • one home-helper may be regularised per family, but it is necessary to certify the presence of old or disabled people who need assistance;
  • domestic workers and home-helpers must be paid at least EUR 439 per month;
  • the employer must pay a social security contribution to the National Institute for Social Insurance (Istituto nazionale di previdenza sociale, Inps) of EUR 290 per month, plus EUR 40 in expenses; and
  • the prefecture will check all the documentation and will call the parties to a meeting for the signature of the regularisation agreement and of the residence permit.


A very harsh debate accompanied the adoption of the Bossi-Fini law and the decree, with criticisms voiced both by trade unions and employers' associations.

Employers, in particular in the north-eastern Veneto region, where the use of foreign labour makes up for local shortfalls, made many criticisms of the restrictions imposed by the new legislation. Many employers criticised the fact that it is now impossible to regularise the situation of immigrant workers who have received a deportation order but remain in Italy. Many firms employ immigrant workers in this category, and the impossibility of regularising their situation risks leaving many companies with an insufficient number of workers.

Luigi Rossi Luciani, president of the Federation of Industrialists of the Veneto Region (Federazione industriali veneti) said that 'companies are affected by the amnesty [for irregular immigrants] in only a very marginal way but, on the contrary, have urgent need of personnel in order to grow.' According to Mr Rossi Luciani, 'it would be less difficult and more productive to leave at work all the irregular immigrants who, according to this law, should be immediately deported.' This provision of the new legislation is still under discussion in parliament. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, in a statement made on 18 September 2002, guaranteed that the government will strike out this clause, thus making it possible for all immigrants who have a job to be regularised, even if they have received a deportation order.

Trade unions have strongly criticised the new immigration legislation, especially because entrance into Italy is now exclusively subordinated to possession of an employment contract. Oberdan Ciucci, the president of Anolf-Cisl- the association of immigrant workers affiliated to the Italian Confederation of Workers' Unions (Confederazione Italiana Sindacati Lavoratori, Cisl) - stated that 'the law is not the result of preliminary negotiations with the trade union and with immigrants' associations. The law was developed to comply with the intolerance of some people against immigrant people … the policies carried out by the Berlusconi government do not tackle the problem and will result in an abnormal increase in irregular and illegal immigrants'. Giorgio Roversi, the official responsible for social policy at Cgil Lombardia, the Lombardy regional organisation of the General Confederation of Italian workers (Confederazione Generale Italian del Lavoro, Cgil), said that the new law contributed a great deal to creating 'a climate which denies foreign women and men rights and which considers foreign workers just as a workforce to be exploited'.


Even if the new legislation brought criticisms and divisions among the political parties and the social partners, it follows the path laid down by the previous centre-left majority. The Bossi-Fini law arguably completes and improves in many aspects the previous law.

One of the major innovations in the new legislation is that employers now have an important social responsibility for defining a welcoming policy for immigrants. Employers, in fact, will have to guarantee a decent life to immigrant employees, with the offer of an employment contract being bound to the offer of accommodation. The new stricter policy on issuing entry visas could contribute to selecting new entrants in relation to the needs of the Italian productive system and will allow vocational training actions to be carried out in favour of non-EU immigrants seeking to stay in Italy.

However, the law will not eradicate the problem of illegal immigrants. Italy's southern coasts and islands are a favourite landing area for thousands of desperate people, transported by criminals to Italy and then through Italy to elsewhere in Europe. More deportations could, perhaps, reduce the numbers but, without the signature of joint agreements with the countries from whose coasts these immigrants embark, forced returns will hardly be effective. Many illegal immigrants return to Italy several times after deportation. Agreements with the other countries can be successful only if these countries receive support for development in exchange for the surveillance of illegal traffic in people, but this is not just a problem for Italy. The situation is so complicated that only a specific European policy on immigration could help western European societies realistically tackle the problems created by these movements. (Domenico Paparella and Vilma Rinolfi, Cesos)

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