Italy’s COVID-19 ‘amnesty’: hope and skepticism

refugees in italy

The Italian government passed a law May 13 paving the way for some 200,000undocumented workers to apply for six-month legal residency permits. But just a few weeks later, the initial atmosphere of hope has quickly faded. The amnesty was one measure in a €55 billion ($59.6 billion) stimulus package meant to support Italy’s economy as the country struggles with impacts of the coronavirus. Italy has had one of the most severe outbreaks in the world, with nearly 230,000 confirmed cases and more than 32,500 deaths as of May 25.

The new regularization law was initially greeted as a major step forward for migrant rights and as an example of good migration policy during the coronavirus pandemic. “From now on, the invisible will be a bit less invisible,” Italy’s minister of agriculture, Teresa Bellanova, said at a press conference announcing the law.

Supporters still say the new law is an important, if tentative, improvement. But critics argue that it amounts to little more than a temporary amnesty that ultimately puts economic interests ahead of human rights, and will do little to address the rampant exploitation of migrant labor, especially in Italy’s agricultural industry.

Italy’s fields have long attracted migrant workers from eastern Europe, hundreds of thousands of whom flock to the country to work the harvest every year. They are joined in the fields by thousands of Africans and other non-Europeans who have crossed the Mediterranean to apply for asylum or to seek better lives in the EU. Nearly 500,000 people have made the journey since 2015. Many intended to move on to northern Europe but found themselves stuck with little choice but to try to find work in Italy’s informal economy.

“[The law] is not exactly what we were hoping for because it is a very limited regularisztion. But at this point, after decades of total invisibility, anything is better than nothing. It is a starting point,” Francesco Piobbichi, a social worker with the migrant support organization Mediterranean Hope, told The New Humanitarian.

Not everyone agrees.

The Unione Sindacale di Base (USB), an Italian trade union that represents agricultural workers, called a national strike on May 21 to protest the law’s shortcomings. The union argues that the law is too limited in scope and will do little to protect exploited migrant agricultural workers. “Legal papers don’t necessarily protect you from exploitation,” said Michele Mililli, a USB representative in Sicily. “This is a structural problem that should not have been addressed during a healthcare emergency, but much earlier.”

There are an estimated 560,000 undocumented migrants in Italy. But the new law only applies to people working in agriculture or as domestic helpers, leaving out people who work in other sectors of the economy that rely heavily on undocumented labor, such as construction and food services.

To regularize their status, undocumented migrants need the support of an employer or proof they were working in one of the eligible sectors prior to October 2019. “There is no guarantee that many [employers] will do it,” Enzo Rossi, a professor of migration economics at Tor Vergata University in Rome, told TNH. “And when the six months
expire, these people will be faced with the same dilemma as before the pandemic.”

The amnesty also excludes people who were stripped of humanitarian protection or legal status by a series of anti-migrant security decrees issued in late 2018 by former far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini that Human Rights Watch said “eviscerated Italy’s asylum procedure and reception system.”

The law focuses instead on people working in sectors of the economy deemed to be “essential” during the pandemic, such as undocumented agricultural workers who account for about 25 percent of Italy’s agricultural workforce, about double the amount of other economic sectors, according to the country’s National Institute of Statistics.

Portugal’s decision in March to treat people with pending immigration applications as residents for the duration of the coronavirus crisis has been regarded as an effort to guarantee that undocumented migrants have access to healthcare and social services during the pandemic. But Italy’s regularization is seen by the USB and other trade unions and humanitarian groups as a more cynical attempt to plug its labor gap—an estimated 250,000-worker shortfall stemming from coronavirus-related travel restrictions and fears.

It’s also not the first time Italy has offered a path toward temporary regularisation for undocumented workers, mainly in agriculture. Over the past 35 years, there have been at least five amnesties, but they’ve never led to a comprehensive solution, according to Rossi.

“The systematic use of this tool has always postponed the bigger problem: a long-term legalisation solution,” Rossi said. “That’s why the numbers of undocumented workers have always been so high.”

From The New Humanitarian, May 25

Photo: Jordi Bernabeu FarrĂșs via Flickr