New Italians, Old Racists: the Current Italian Debate on Citizenship Laws.

A country at the crossroads

There are over 60 million people of Italian background across the world, estimates say (Source: Radio Svizzera Italiana). They are the descendants of the 24 million people who left the country between 1890 and 1950, and form the biggest European diaspora in modern history. It was not until the late 1970s that the balance between in-migration and out-migration began to change, with in-migration slightly ahead by 1978: at that time, however, most of the recent “immigrants” were, in fact, returning Italian emigrants from Northern Europe, the Americas and Australia. The number of in-migrants continued to grow, reaching a considerable size by the mid 1980s.
The phenomenon of immigration to Italy from other countries first came under the spotlight in 1989, when South African Jerry Masslo, working on the tomato harvest in Villa Literno, was murdered by organized crime for standing up against the immigration racket. This episode caused a big sensation, prompting the Socialist government to pass the first immigration law in 1990 (Law Martelli) and indirectly stimulating the birth of “Italian migrant literature”.
Currently, there are over 3.5 million foreign citizens legally resident in Italy. Migration from Italy to foreign countries, though, is far from being a closed chapter. Young people, in particular, have continued to leave the country at a growing pace, and in 2012, the migration balance tipped the other way for the first time in decades, with 50,000 people leaving the country, and “only” 27,000 immigrants entering Italy. By the end of 2012, over 4 million Italians were on the Registers of Italians Residing Abroad (AIRE), amounting to 7% of the total population: 32% of them have a university degree, higher than the 15% of the general population. (Migrantes 2012).
The history of Italian migration is intertwined with the memory of Italy’s shameful colonial past, a memory frequently covered by denial and by the self-forgiving idea that Italians were less violent than other colonial countries. This belief is often summed up in the phrase, “Italiani brava gente” (Italians are good folk), and, as historian Angelo del Boca has argued, has been a great obstacle to a fair assessment of Italian colonial violence. The issue of immigration opens many painful memories of diaspora, memories that the nation would prefer to forget, and which throw fuel on the fire of an already difficult debate.

Ius soli vs. ius sanguinis

Italian citizenship is mainly granted through ius sanguinis (right of birth), including those foreign nationals who can prove their Italian descent. There is, though, no law granting citizenship by ius soli (right of residence). Children of legal immigrants are not automatically granted citizenship, unless they are children of stateless foreign citizens (“apolidi”). Furthermore, they must apply for citizenship by their 19th birthday in order to keep their eligibility. And as soon as they turn 18, these young women and men have to apply for their own individual temporary residence permit, to avoid deportation to countries where they have never lived.
On March 21, 2013, four members of the PD (Cécile Kyenge, now Minister of Integration, Khalid Chaouki, Roberto Speranza and the former PD Secretary Pier Luigi Bersani) put forward a Bill that would change this situation, “New Dispositions on the Conferral of Citizenship”. If passed, this law would mean that Italian citizenship would be granted to the children of immigrants legally resident in Italy for at least 5 years, or to children who moved to Italy before turning 10 and who completed a cycle of primary, secondary school, or vocational instruction in Italy. As Kyenge later clarified, in response to the wave of ensuing political debate, the proposal advocates a watered-down ius soli right: citizenship would not be automatically granted to all those who are born in Italy but only to those who also meet certain residency requirements.
The proposal has immediately divided the political world, with right-wing forces (PDL and the Northern League) adamantly against it and the center-left overwhelmingly in favor.
Beppe Grillo, the charismatic M5S leader, has rejected it strongly, claiming that Italians need to have a referendum, and that such an important decision should not be left to a group of self-interested politicians.
Grillo is not new to such a position: in 2007, he published a vitriolic anti-Roma post, “I confini sconsacrati”, in which he described the immigration of Roma as a time-bomb, and advocated a moratorium on the Schengen agreement. More recently, in January 2012, he rejected the proposal of a law granting citizenship based on ius soli, stating that “ordinary citizens would pay the price of left-wing sentimentalism” – his extraordinary description of the claim of people born, educated and continuously resident in Italy to have the same rights as everyone else.

Colored? No, black

“I am not a colored woman: I am a black woman, and I am proud of it.” These are the words of Cécile Kyenge, newly elected Minister of Integration. Sure enough, the election of a black woman to the Italian parliament, and her appointment as a Minister has uncovered the deep racism of many Italians, on all political sides.

Soon after Kyenge’s appointment, prominent Northern Leaguer Borghezio spoke quite freely on the popular radio programme “La zanzara,” broadcast by the national radio network, using racial slurs and offensive epithets such as “bonga bonga.” Among other things, Borghezio claimed that Kyenge, a medical doctor, was working illegally as an ophthalmologist, and was “surely stealing the place of a more qualified Italian.” Kyenge was given immediate support by the President of the Chamber, Laura Boldrini, and fellow Minister Josefa Idem, while many across the political spectrum condemned the episode.

Racism, however, comes not only from well-known xenophobes, such as the Northern League, but also from unexpected places.
On Sunday May 3, for instance, Kyenge was interviewed on the Italian public network by popular presenter Lucia Annunziata, the current director of Huffington Post Italy. Instead of focusing on political issues, Annuziata questioned the Minister on personal issues such as the number of her brothers and the depth of her Catholic faith. Towards the end of the interview, she even credited Kyenge with “bringing a bit of animism polygamy to Italy”. Once again, the popular presenter’s questions put forward a stereotypical view of “black Africa,” one based on exotic tales of mystery and seduction, and ignorant of national and regional identities.

New Italians speak up

Condemnation of these and other racist episodes has come from the lively and thriving cultural world of second-generation and new immigrants (as they often define themselves), expressing itself through the media, culture and interesting outlets such as (the blog of Second Generation Italians), Stranieriinitalia, Corriere immigrazione, and Afrikitalia among others. (Apologies if we missed anyone!)

Prominent Italian-Somalian novelist Igiaba Scego denounced the racism of Lucia Annunziata’s televised interview in a heartfelt piece on Corriere Immigrazione. “I wondered if Annunziata would ask the same questions if, instead of the newly elected minister Kyenge, she had interviewed, let’s say, Laura Boldrini or Emma Bonino. I don’t think so. I am sure she would have asked political questions, instead of jumping to these wannabe-anthropologist’s questions,” says Scegbo.

Khalid Chouaki, also elected as a PD Deputy, has spoken against racism in an open letter to Roberto Maroni (Secretary of the Northern League), accusing his party of de facto legitimization of racism in Italy.

Freelance columnist Rania Ibrahima wrote a caustic column in the online magazine “La città nuova,” arguing that Kyenge should be credited for having exposed the shame of racism against black people in Italy, beyond any possible denial. “It’s not sufficient to elect black, disabled or veiled MPs. The road is very long, and I think we’re really in a bad place. We need to address people’s gut feelings, and not only reach out to the elitist world of intellectuals and experts… we need to reach out to the street, to popular neighborhoods and the internet, which are the real mirror of social disadvantage and of the conditions of this growing hatred and pain,” Ibrahima said. She also pointed her finger at the glaring hypocrisy of Italians: “What else do we need to show in order to be recognized as Italians, without other qualifications or labels? Those who burned and spat on the flag were elected to rule the country for many years; but if an Italian-Congolese publicly says that she respects her origins, and is proud of them, people feel unrepresented and offended.”

Yet, as all headlines focus on the gruesome event in Milan, when Ghanaian national Adam Kabobo attacked five people with a pickaxe, killing one and injuring four, and the Northern League readily capitalizes on the tragedy, claiming that “these are the immigrants sponsored by Minister Kyenge”, true integration seems just a faraway dream.


text (it) Stranieri in Italia
text (it) Stranieri in Italia
text (it) Stranier in Italia
text (it) Migrantes


I’ve made a first pass. I’ll come back in the morning.


I don’t quite get the last sentence in the first section. Is the nation oblivious or would it prefer to forget? Are the memories of the Italian diaspora, or of colonialism, or of what?

It’s a timely article, I think, and it’s looking good.


Minister for Integration not Immigration?