In the news: Italy to grant undocumented migrants work permits

Up to 560,000 migrants live without papers in Italy, but only those working as labourers or carers will be eligible.

A long queue for the immigration office in Milan, Italy, in 2017. A new policy will allow tens of thousands of undocumented migrants to become legal residents by applying for work permits. (Alexandre Rotenberg/Shutterstock)

Italy has paved the way for tens of thousands of undocumented migrants to become legal residents by applying for work permits. The move came as part of a 55 billion euro ($59.6 billion) stimulus package approved on Wednesday by the coalition government to help the sagging Italian economy, which has been battered by the effects of the coronavirus. 

Italy has seen one of largest outbreaks of the virus in the world, with over 220,000 confirmed infections and 31,000 deaths, as of 14 May, and is slowly starting to loosen social distancing rules following a two-month lockdown.

There are around 560,000 migrants living in Italy without work permits or residency documents, according to 2019 estimates. The new policy creates a path to regularisation for undocumented people working in agriculture and as domestic helpers. Residency permits issued under the policy will be valid for six months

Representatives of human rights organisations praised the move on Twitter as “a major step forward” for the “visibility and dignity of migrants.” But before it passed, the measure strained Italy’s four-party governing coalition, with three centre-left parties supporting the move and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement opposing it. 

Prior to the formation of the current government, the Five Star Movement was allied with the far-right League Party led by Matteo Salvini, a central figure in anti-migrant and refugee politics in Italy and Europe. 

The Five Star Movement opposed the path to legal residency for undocumented migrants on the grounds that it would benefit employers who had engaged in illegal employment practices. Supporters of the move argued that it would protect undocumented workers by giving them access to healthcare and social services during the pandemic and help combat labour exploitation. 

Italy is also facing a potential food shortage and a labour crisis in its agricultural sector as migrant workers from eastern Europe who usually travel to Italy to work during seasonal harvests are either choosing to stay home or unable to make the trip this year. The organisation ActionAid criticised a draft of Italy’s regularisation decree calling it “utilitarian”, and saying it put “market interests before the rights and lives of foreign citizens”.

Italy has long been at the centre of Europe’s ongoing debates over migration. The creation of a pathway to legal residency for undocumented people during the coronavirus crisis may be seen as a positive development for migrants’ rights. But Italy has also declared its ports unsafe due to the virus, impeding efforts to rescue asylum seekers and migrants fleeing Libya during the pandemic.

– Eric Reidy

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