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Taking advantage of the state of need? First steps for regularisation in Italy

MATTEO MABILIA  |  20 JUNE 2020  | ISSUE #10

With the arrival of COVID-19 in Italy, the emergency situation brought to light several pre-existing problems that were previously hidden or not listened to. One of these is the exploitative situation in which thousands of undocumented migrants find themselves because of their irregular status due to the mandatory integration measures. These are the only possibility of staying in Italy, a country where the channels of entry are truly limited and from which it is easy to find oneself excluded. Indeed, inclusion policies and humanitarian protection aim to provide the ground for a hierarchical differential inclusion of migrants through their discriminatory labelling and precarious legal situation. As pointed out by the scholar Nicholas De Genova, the migrant is subject to illegalisation processes and a state of deportability which deliberately makes them vulnerable and exploitable in informal work.


In Italy, many people have been left without work and without access to economic benefits. In this way, the COVID-19 effect is becoming a problem for that part of the population that is unable to manage self-confinement due to economic and social conditions. Thus, these people are most at risk from the point of view of inequalities and exploitation. The Italian government and institutions should therefore promote a culture of legality and rights for all workers, but above all for all human beings. 


The spread of the epidemic has worsened the situation in the countryside. According to the humanitarian organisation Intersos, many migrant workers live in precarious hygiene conditions, without running water, with scarce food and often with linguistic difficulties, risking getting sick and contributing to the increase in infections in the places – often ghettos – where they are forced to live.


In Italy there are almost 600,000 migrants without a residence permit as a result of Italian legislation: from Law 30 July 2002, n. 189, to Law Decree 4 October 2018, n. 113. The first, known as the Bossi-Fini Law, links the possibility of a residence permit to actual work, excluding other possibilities of entry into the country. The second one, known by the name of ‘Security Decree’, eliminates the discretion in granting humanitarian protection, as well as its renewal, forcing thousands of migrants into a state of irregularity. For this reason, they have extreme difficulties in accessing fundamental rights – such as health, housing, work, income, etc. A structural condition that has inevitably affected these people and forced them to work informally. 


There are several basic reasons. Starting from the most concrete and local one, the economic system with which Italy has surrounded itself is a system that aims at maximisation of production. And given that competition and the price of food are decided at the level of large retailers, they try to earn from the wages – and therefore from the rights – of workers. Migrants work in the countryside – from north to south Italy – for 2-3 euros per hour, at dehumanising rhythms. This concept of capitalist production takes advantage of a structural situation of irregularity, given the difficulty in obtaining a residence permit when already in the territory.


After weeks of discussion, the so-called ‘Decreto Rilancio’ (Relaunch Decree) (Law Decree 19 May 2020, no. 34), in article 103, has finally disciplined the regularisation and emergent procedures of people engaged in work activities within certain specific sectors. This regulatory intervention comes at a historic moment and is fundamental above all to recognise the hundreds of thousands of invisible people, especially migrants. It is considered a first step to regularise their status in Italy and to see their rights finally recognised. However, it is a very criticised regularisation because it just represents these people as workforce and not as people with equal rights to citizens. In fact, the difficult economic situation Italy is passing through regarding the entire agricultural chain has governed this decision also at an institutional level. 


Although many of these unrecognised people have actually been in Italy for many years – even ten or more – it is necessary to rethink the system of entry into the country. From permits to levels of legal protection, and above all the reception system that just limits the image of the immigrant to needy people on a conceptual level, representing them as inferior and in need of humanitarian intervention. A profound rethinking of migration policies is needed and, given the moment in which Italy is going through, an urgent and generalised response is needed.


In a global context in which human rights – and human rights defenders – were already under constant attack, the COVID-19 emergency risks making the situation dramatically worse and becoming the pretext to further limit the spaces for civic accessibility and civil liberties. 


In Italy, the state of exception created by the emergency must not crystallise and become permanent because it risks producing serious repercussions. Transparent monitoring of human rights derogations is fundamental, especially for those who are not legally and socially recognised and therefore are exploited in the economic market.


For the moment, for those who are irregular, there is no alternative to exploitation. Illegal and underpaid work creates unfair competition on the downside that only enriches ‘illegal’ exploiters and intermediaries, ending up pitting us against each other in a war between the poor, Italians and others. The corporal, the exploitation, the slums will not disappear. The regulation provided by the government is a partial and complicated measure. However, it risks creating yet another black market of fictitious contracts to obtain a residence permit that lasts a few months. 


Case law defines modern slavery as taking advantage of the state of need. Not as a distinction between migrants and Italians. Not as a separation between irregular migrants and good people. The new chains to be broken are the residence permit which is now linked to the employment contract, the social vulnerability, isolation and segregation. In a normal world, those who experience these situations should be supported. Instead, the situation is often aggravated by – discriminatory – laws. 


Shared campaigns should be on minimum wages, separation of employment contract and document, support for families, universal European income. Even more, I consider important the actions that civil society – in Italy and worldwide – can take to ensure that the health emergency does not become a pretext to limit, deny and violate fundamental human rights. The re-imagination of a longer-term solution is needed: a cultural and social rethinking which must result in the struggle governed by the victims of this system.

Matteo Mabilia

Matteo is in the process of completing an M.A. in International Criminology at the University of Bologna (Italy). He has focused his studies on the socio-political and cultural transformations in the Middle East and the Mediterranean area.

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