Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Italian, German, French, Greek, Albanian, Ladin, Slovene, Sardu, Friulian, Occitan
Linguistic minorities include Sardu-speakers 1 million, Tyrolese German-speakers 350,000, Albanians 70,000 – 100,000, Slovenes 60,000, Franco-Provençal-speakers 50,000 – 70,000, Occitans 20,000 – 40,000, Ladins 30,000, Catalans 15,000, Greek-speakers 12,000 and Croatians 3,000, as well as Friulians 600,000.
The Italian Roma community is one of the largest ethnic minorities in the country. Due to the lack of disaggregated data the size of the community remains uncertain, with Council of Europe estimates of between 120,000 and 180,000. A significant proportion do not have Italian citizenship.
Italy has a growing foreign population in the country, amounting to more than 5.1 million registered inhabitants. This includes include Romanians 1,190,100, Albanians 440,500, Moroccans 416,500, Ukrainians 237,000, Chinese 290,700, Philippinos 167,900 and Indians 151,800.
Italy has historically been an overwhelmingly Catholic country, but this is now changing as significant numbers of Italians now self-identify as non-practising or atheists. Among Italian citizens, 3.5 per cent of the population are estimated to belong to religious minorities, including a range of non-Catholic Christians denominations (Protestants 471,300, Jehovah’s Witnesses 425,500, Orthodox 272,200 and other smaller groups), as well as Muslims 367,100, Buddhists 179,000, Hindus 41,700, Jews 36,600, Sikhs 17,200, Bahá’í 4,300 and others.
However, these figures do not include Italy’s growing immigrant population, a large proportion of whom adhere to non-Catholic religious beliefs. Indeed, when the immigration population is also factored in, the proportion of religious minorities in Italy rises to 9.7 per cent. Among the immigrant population, religious minorities include Muslims 1,641,800, Hindus 150,800, Buddhists 113,900 and Jews 4,600 as well as Orthodox 1,505,000, Protestants 216,800 and other Christian groups.
While Italy has experienced decades of immigration, in recent years tensions have risen as the debate around migration and diversity has become increasingly politicized. Against a backdrop of economic stagnation, right-wing political parties have enjoyed a resurgence in popular support, capitalizing on growing fears of minorities and migrants in the country. Though rooted in a history of racism, anti-migrant sentiment has also intensified in response to the European refugee crisis, beginning in 2015, that has seen hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers and migrants arrive in Italy, primarily from Libya. In this context, the far-right has enjoyed a surge in popularity, while minorities and migrants in the country have found themselves subjected to increasing vilification.
The political response to migration and the drowning of thousands of those who attempted the crossing has shifted over time. In response to the rising death toll, in October 2013 Italian authorities implemented a year-long humanitarian programme, Operation Mare Nostrum, with Italian naval patrols offering search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean. Though the initiative is credited with saving thousands of lives, for political and economic reasons it was not renewed after it expired in October 2014. Instead it was replaced by Operation Triton, managed by Frontex, with a focus on border security rather than rescue – a move that many human rights groups believe has cost many lives, despite the efforts of NGOs and other non-state actors to fill the gap. This approach was brought into question in April 2015 when more than 1,200 people died in two separate shipwrecks: the boats capsized as the ‘rescue’ cargo boats were approaching them to save the passengers in distress. In the wake of these episodes resources for Triton were increased, though the priority has remained on border management. Italy’s agreement in 2017 with the Libyan government, committing to provide support to the interception and detention of migrants in Libyan territory, has also been widely criticized in the context of the widespread human rights violations, including torture and sexual assault, perpetrated on migrants by Libyan border guards and security officials.
But migration has also come to play an increasingly prominent role in Italy’s internal politics, particularly with the rise of right-wing political groups such as Lega Nord (Northern League). The party, which began as a regionalist party focused primarily on secession of northern Italy from the poorer south of the country, first capitalized on strong social divisions within the country to trade in stereotypes of southerners that associated them with crime, lack of development and corruption. Latterly, however, particularly under the leadership of Matteo Salvini, the party has adapted these tactics to the vilifiation of migrants and asylum seekers. This shift has brought Lega Nord nationwide popularity and substantial gains in the 2018 elections, where its share of the popular vote rose from 4.1 to 17.7 per cent, making it the third largest party in Italy. The success was driven in large part by the party’s reorientation towards nationalist rather than regionalist rhetoric and its attacks on immigrants, frequently blaming them for a range of social ills including economic decline, criminality and terrorism.
Since his appointment in June 2018 as Interior Minister, Salvini has implemented a range of hostile measures towards asylum seekers and migrants, including refusing entry to rescue ships operated by NGOs at Italian ports. In September 2018, the last nongovernmental ship undertaking rescues off the Libyan coast, the Aquarius, was forced out of operation after Italy pressured Panama to revoke the use of its flag, with the Italian government subsequently calling for its seizure, alleging it had released toxic waste. Other laws passed during 2018 have also seen the limited protections offered refugees reduced even further. At the same time, authorities continue to turn a blind eye to the widespread exploitation of migrant workers in Italy, many of whom work long hours for little pay in inhumane conditions.
Salvini’s rhetoric has helped cement growing xenophobic sentiment not only towards asylum seekers and migrants, but also towards other ethnic and religious minorities within Italy. Racism in Italy is not a recent phenomenon, however, as illustrated by the treatment of the country’s African minority. While many African immigrants have struggled to secure citizenship, even after decades in the country, naturalized African-Italians have also faced widespread discrimination and abuse. This was illustrated by the treatment of Cécile Kyenge Kashetu, a former Integration Minister and now a European Minister of Parliament who was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She was frequently been the victim of racist slurs and attacks not only by members of the general public, but also senior politicians: for instance, Roberto Calderoli, a Lega Nord senator, compared her to an orangutan in 2013. This incident points to a much wider problem of racism within Italy, tragically highlighted in February 2018 when a far-right extremist and former failed candidate for the Lega Nord party wounded six Africans in the town of Macerata. The attack was apparently carried in revenge for the murder of Pamela Mastropietro, following the arrest of three Nigerian suspects.
Another historically marginalized minority, now also a target for Salvini and the Lega Nord, is Italy’s Roma population. Numbering between 120,000 and 180,000, a significant proportion of whom lack Italian citizenship. Long stigmatized, thousands of Roma live on the outskirts of major cities, often segregated in camps and in inadequate living conditions. At the same time, their situation has been made even more precarious as a result of repeated evictions that, besides leaving many families homeless, have further undermined their ability to access services or sustainable livelihoods. For example, in May 2019 Italian authorities forcibly evicted an estimated 500 Roma from their settlement in Giugliano, Campania, including children, pregnant women and elderly persons. Salvini has further entrenched popular prejudice towards Roma since his appointment by calling in June 2018 for the expulsion of all non-Italian Roma and a nationwide census of all Roma in the country. While a targeted census would likely be barred as unconstitutional, the proposal nevertheless highlights the ability of the Lega Nord to exploit stigmatized communities for political gain and has been compared by rights groups with policies implemented during Italy’s fascist era.
Updated June 2019.
Italy consists of a long peninsula with its western coast on the Mediterranean Sea and eastern coast on the Adriatic Sea, hinterland in the north including the southern Alps, southern Tyrol and Dolomite mountains, and the Mediterranean islands of Sicily and Sardinia. In the north-east Italy borders Slovenia and Austria, in the north Switzerland, and in the north-west France. Much of Italy is mountainous. The south, or Mezzogiorno, is typically dry and has been disadvantaged economically both in agriculture and industry.
Ethnic minorities are scattered, especially in the mountainous regions of the north and south and on the island of Sardinia.
Italy was unified to include most of its present territory between 1860 and 1870. While the north industrialized from the second half of the nineteenth century, the south remained largely agricultural. Italians from north and south emigrated en masse to the USA and to a much lesser extent to northern Europe. Imperial ventures in Africa met with disaster in Ethiopia and success in Libya, but this did not bring wealth to Italy.
After Benito Mussolini took power in 1922 most ethnic minorities, as well as all political opponents, were ruthlessly suppressed. Mussolini pursued expansion along the Adriatic seaboard and in Africa. World War II resulted in the loss of all the African colonies, of Albania and islands in the Adriatic. The north-eastern border with Yugoslavia was settled by international treaties in 1947, 1954 and 1974, but was still a matter of contention until Slovenia joined the European Union in 2004. Attempts by the French and Franco-Provençal-speakers of the Valle d’Aosta to join France or Switzerland failed. Demands by the German-speakers of the South Tyrol to join Austria were also denied.
In the 1960s the Italian economy began to recover. US investment created new industries, mostly in the north and around Rome. The south remained poor even with the prosperity brought by membership of the European Economic Community, (EEC) and EEC aid to the Mezzogiorno. Emigration to northern Europe and the USA continued. From the 1990s the Mezzogiorno experienced an economic revival with new industries and services, and a rise in real estate values from the purchase of second and retirement homes by middle- and high-income people.
Italy became a country of immigration from the 1970s, with nationals of other EEC countries coming to work in a variety of jobs: nationals of the former colonies in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia came to work in agriculture and construction, and women from the Philippines and Cape Verde came to work in service in private households. Moroccans soon followed. The 1990s brought a large increase of immigrants fleeing conflict in the former Yugoslavia and immigrants from elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
The large informal economy has given scope to illegal immigration. Several amnesties over the years have done little to reduce the number of undocumented immigrants. This has fuelled racist sentiment. Employers are willing to hire immigrants without work permits. The amnesty of 2003 drew 705,000 applicants, the second largest legalisation in the world to that date. Romanians were 20 per cent of the applicants, Ukrainians 15 per cent, while Albanians and Moroccans were 8 per cent each.
In the late 2000s, the effects of the global financial crisis were acutely felt in Italy. The failure of then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to halt economic decline eventually forced his resignation in 2011 amid widespread accusations of corruption, fraud and sex offences. At the same time, increasing migration from North Africa to Italy’s shores became a focus of public debate. As a result, Italy’s right-wing parties enjoyed a resurgence as a new populist, anti-migrant politics took hold, reflected in the rise of the Lega Nord. Once focused on a secessionist agenda for Italy’s more affluent north, it reoriented its policies to target asylum seekers, migrants and Roma, making it the third largest party in the country after substantial gains in the 2018 election.
The 1947 Constitution of the newly formed Republic of Italy institutionalized regions as a means of decentralizing power and to prevent totalitarian rule. There are 20 regions, including five with special autonomy status. Each region has an authorizing statute that functions as a constitution, a popularly elected unicameral regional council, an executive committee and a president. The special autonomous regions have powers to make laws and raise taxes, whereas the other regional governments have much less power.
Article 3 of the Constitution guarantees equality before the law and fundamental freedoms, and guards against discrimination on the grounds of sex, race, language, religion, political opinions, and personal and social conditions.
Article 6 states that linguistic minorities will be protected by appropriate means. Four of the five autonomous regions – Sardinia, Valle d’Aosta, Trentino-Alto Adige, Sicily and Friuli-Venezia Giulia – have distinct linguistic minorities. Sicily claims its language is distinct, but the Italian government decided it is a dialect of Italian and therefore does not qualify for protection. Because of the established supremacy of standard Italian in all regions, the protection given to the linguistic minorities was mostly inadequate.
There have been several revisions of constitutional law and other instruments to improve the situation. It was not until 1999 that national law set the minimum means of protecting linguistic minorities, which minorities were included and how they should qualify for protection. They must be 15 per cent of the population of their community.
The 12 official ethnic linguistic minorities are Albanians, Catalans, Germans, Greeks, Slovenes, Croatians, Ladins, French, Franco-Provençal, Occitans, Friuli and Sardinians. Provision was made for state broadcaster RAI to produce and transmit radio and TV programmes in these languages.
There have been a multitude of Italian governments since 1948. Coalitions are essential and add to the complexity. As traditional political parties disintegrated into scandal and corruption, regional parties and new alliances gained in importance. The 30 or so Italian dialects have played a greater role in political campaigning on account of the regional parties. But regional demands for greater autonomy in the 1980s and 1990s were brushed aside by the central government. The regions were excluded from the 1992 parliamentary commission to consider constitutional reform.
In 1984 the 1929 Concordat with the Roman Catholic Church was revised to formalize the principle of the secular state but to maintain the practice of state support for religion and that this support could be extended to other religions. Present agreements include the Waldesian Church (1984), the Adventists and Assembly of God (1988), Jews (1989), Baptists and Lutherans (1995), Buddhist Union and Jehovah’s Witnesses (2001).
The first large-scale legalization of undocumented immigrants took place from 1987 to 1988. It set the basic conditions that were followed in the 1990 Martelli Law, Italy’s first comprehensive immigration law. It restricted immigration and required immigrants to be sponsored by an employer. It also recognized equal civil rights for legal immigrants and Italian citizens. This exercise regularized 235,000 immigrants. In 1995–6 another legalization took place, with 238,000 foreign workers receiving permits. They had to prove that they had paid three months of national insurance.
The 1998 Immigration Act set annual quotas, provided for the integration of legal migrants, the restriction of undocumented immigration and expulsion of illegal migrants. It made a distinction between economic migrants and refugees. It contained an analysis of the need for sustained immigration to offset the rapidly ageing population. It also introduced the first specific equality legislation, banning direct and indirect discrimination by individuals and public bodies, setting procedural rules for discrimination cases and allowing for compensation of victims. This law was adapted in two 2003 decrees to comply with European Union directives on equal racial treatment and equal treatment in employment.
The 2003 laws reserve the right of religious entities to discriminate in employment if this is required as part of the faith. The Ufficio Nazionale Antidiscriminazioni Razziali (National Office against Racial Discrimination) was opened in 2004 to process cases of discrimination. A 2006 law, promoted by the Northern League party, significantly weakens the penalties against incitement to hatred and racial discrimination.
The Bossi-Fini Law of 2002 set more restrictive immigration quotas, required immigrant–employer contracts for all types of work, including care and domestic workers, and increased deportations of illegal migrants. In the amnesty that accompanied the law 634,728 workers were legalized.
Work permits are issued for nine months for seasonal work, and one or two years, depending on the duration of the contract. Two-year permits are issued for self-employment. Renewals can be made for up to six years, at which point the migrant can apply for a long-term residence card. A child born to an Italian father or mother has automatic Italian citizenship. Foreign citizens can become naturalized Italians after 10 continuous years of residence in Italy.
In 2017, proponents of Ius soli (‘right of the soil’) – contained in a bill that would grant Italian citizenship to the children of foreigners born in Italy who have spent at least five years in school – made an appeal to approve the controversial proposal. The bill was strongly opposed by the Lega Nord, the far-right party. The political situation has since remained the same; since the bill has still not been adopted, immigrant children can only apply for citizenship once they turn 18 and must have lived in the country since their birth.
In April 2017, new legislation was introduced to speed up asylum procedures and counter irregular migration. The law has been criticized for the lack of clarity about the management of reception and identification facilities, including failure to correctly identify asylum seekers, prolonged detention of migrants and excessive use of force.
Fondation Emile Chanoux
Mosaico Italo Croato Roma
Agostina Piccoli Foundation
Central State Office for Croats Abroad
Arlef – Agenzia regionale per la lingua friulana
Società Filologica Friulana
Website: Lou Soulestrei
Jalò tu Vua
Istitut Cultural Ladin
SLORI (the Slovene Research Institute in Trieste)
A.I.Z.O. Rom e Sinti Onlus
Associazione 21 Luglio Onlus
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Sources and further reading
Minorities and indigenous peoples in
- South Tyrolese German-speakers