A partial six-month amnesty for Italy’s undocumented migrants was announced this month in a move described by some as “a watershed moment” in the country’s migration policy and “an act of cynicism” by others.
“Thanks to the choice made by this government, the invisible will become less invisible,” said Teresa Bellanova, Italy’s agriculture minister, in her emotional announcement speech on May 13.
The former trade unionist was referring to people working in the agriculture and fishing industries, as well as care workers who have been without a residency permit.
The measure, which grants a six-month residency, has been praised by CGIL-FLAI, the country’s biggest farmworkers’ union, as an “historic achievement”.
But migrant activists have criticised the limited nature of the amnesty, which will affect only about 200,000 people, according to the Italian government’s estimates.
The total number of undocumented migrants in the country ranges between 560,000 to 700,000, according to various estimates.
“The tears of the minister provided a really farcical scene,” said Abdel El Mir, a spokesperson of Movement of Migrants and Refugees of Naples (MMRN) – a group of migrants and Italians of foreign origin with up to 300 members, based in the southern city of Naples.
The group held some of the first street protests in the city after the recent easing of the coronavirus lockdown.
Italy made it clear that its provision was only intended to fill gaps in the labour market as the coronavirus pandemic hit the country.
Agriculture lobbies had warned the government that Italy would have to throw away huge amounts of fruit and vegetables because there was nobody to pick them, worsening the effects of a shutdown costing the food sector seven billion euros ($7.58bn).
“We are not making a favour to immigrant citizens by giving them a residence permit,” said Bellanova. “We are simply addressing our need for additional workforce.”
Under her scheme, the power to regularise migrants lies predominantly with landowners, who will be able to request residence permits for their workers by providing an employment contract and paying a 500-euro ($548) fee.
In response, the country’s migrant agriculture workers went on a nationwide strike on May 21, protesting against employment sponsorship being the basis for residency permits.
Aboubakar Soumahoro, the strike organiser, accused the government of “putting fruit and vegetables above people’s lives”.
The strike was not endorsed by any major union.
“In Italy, immigration is only ever understood as permissible when it is seen as having economic utility,” said Camilla Hawthorne, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California Santa Cruz, who has studied migrant activism in Italy.
The country passed its first comprehensive immigration legislation in 1990, in the wake of the racially motivated murder of Jerry Masslo. He was an asylum seeker from apartheid South Africa who worked as an undocumented agriculture labourer in the region of Naples.
According to Hawthorne, the current situation resembles the 1990 case, because a humanitarian rhetoric was used to pass immigration laws at the time, but “every subsequent law linked residence permits to work contracts”.
El Mir said the recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic was likely to produce a spike in the number of undocumented people as the employment rates fall, leaving them more vulnerable.
“Lacking a document means lacking every right, including ordinary access to healthcare,” he said.
The group of migrants and refugees El Mir is associated with run a free legal help desk, a small health surgery and an Italian language school in Naples. They are providing assistance to more than 4,000 people.