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The Italian Diaspora and Migrants’ Rights

Italy’s historically generous citizenship rights are complicating its attempts to deal with an influx of migrants. With more citizens than ever before living abroad, how does Italy balance the rights afforded by blood and those afforded by soil?

For centuries Italy experienced significant emigration as a result of economic struggles before and after the two world wars. Due to the relocation of many Italian citizens to foreign countries, Italy gained a large transnational community with 4.8 million citizens living permanently abroad in 2015, while only 10 years earlier the amount living overseas was 3.5 million.

This most recent figure provided by the Italian Ministry of the Interior represents the highest number of Italian citizens living abroad ever registered. Over the past 10 years, the number of Italian citizens living in foreign countries has constantly increased due to two main factors: the beginning of a new wave of emigration and the acquisition of Italian citizenship by many Italian descendants living abroad.

Since 2007 and the global financial crisis, Italy has started to experience more emigration with many young Italians relocating in foreign countries to find better job opportunities. At the same time, however, Italian institutions have registered an increasing interest amongst Italian descendants in acquiring the Italian citizenship.

The Italian citizenship policy

The Italian citizenship policy is based on the ius sanguinis (right of blood) principle. This principle allows citizens of a nation to acquire citizenship and transmit it to descendants based on ‘blood connections’.

People with Italian descendants are entitled—according to the legislation introduced in 1992—to access full citizenship rights, no matter where they live, as long as they can demonstrate links to an Italian ancestor.

The current Italian citizenship policy is the result of a long process of reconnection with the Italian communities living abroad. The country’s very generous citizenship policy entitles every person with Italian ancestors to Italian citizenship with no restrictions on citizenship rights, such as residency. As long as a person can demonstrate they have a great-great grandfather with Italian citizenship, he or she will be able to obtain the Italian passport and gain full citizenship rights—Italian residency or fluency are not important. The legislation does not put any boundaries on the acquisition of Italian citizenship rights for Italian descendants.

The policy also allows citizens to have dual citizenship. This was introduced as a result of the complicated circumstances Italian emigrants had to face in their new countries of residency. Most of the host countries to which Italians relocated from the 1890s to the 1970s did not allow dual citizenship, forcing Italians to renounce their Italian citizenship.

Recently, this generous policy has helped many people with Italian ancestry to obtain Italian passports for utilitarian purposes and not to become a member of the Italian community. For instance, some Italian descendants living in South American countries are driven to Italian citizenship as a means to obtain a European Union (EU) passport with which they can travel and live within EU member states.

Italians abroad

Due to the phenomenon of the (re)acquisition of Italian citizenship, together with the new emigration wave, the number of Italian citizens living abroad has constantly increased over the past 10 years.

According to data provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the top four countries with the largest presence of Italian citizens are Argentina (900,592), Germany (743,623), Switzerland (609,715) and Brazil (456,115). These figures should not surprise. These countries were the most popular destinations for Italians emigrating in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, the large presence of Italian citizens in Argentina and Brazil is also a consequence of the citizenship acquisition process started by many Italian descendants to obtain the Italian citizenship.

Consequences for refugees

There is no doubt the Italian citizenship policy implemented in 1992 has caused the enlargement of the Italian transnational community around the world. At the time of its implementation, however, Italian lawmakers did not consider the consequences. Since the policy does not include any limitations on the acquisition of citizenship rights, Italian descendants receive full political, social and civic rights no matter where they reside. Italian citizens living abroad are entitled to receive a pension, to access free healthcare in the country and to cast their vote to elect representatives in the Italian parliament.

The citizenship policy is particularly controversial today due to the presence of large numbers of immigrants in the country. The exclusive Italian citizenship policy does not allow immigrants living in Italy to access citizenship rights. The ius soli (right of the soil) principle has always been rejected by Italian policymakers, making Italian citizenship a privilege only for people with ‘Italian blood’.

For many years, the Italian parliament has postponed discussion on the acquisition of citizenship rights for immigrants. In recent times the numerous requests for fair legislation for immigrants have forced the Italian parliament to start a new discussion about citizenship rights. In this case, the very generous citizenship rights for Italians abroad will also become a matter of discussion. This discussion could give policymakers the opportunity to reconsider the policy that offers numerous privileges to Italian descendants who do not live in Italy but which puts severe limitations on foreign people that live in the country.

Chiara De Lazzari is completing a PhD in Politics at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. Her research investigates political transnationalism and citizenship rights of Italian emigrants.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.

Published March 13, 2017