Sunday, March 20, 2011

1954 – 2011: The Changing of Italy’s Asylum Policy


The purpose of this paper is to explore the controversy of the changing of Italy’s policy on asylum over the time of Italy introducing the 1951 Geneva Convention implications. From that time till present day, Italy has went through a variety of different events and governments each influencing the policy during each respected time. One main event was the turn around of Italy being a country that was emigration to a country of immigration. This particular event started the reform for a new policy in regards towards such issues as asylum. Now with current world events, Italy is in the forefront of controversy, putting its open-ended policy in to question by the public eye.

Throughout my research, I was able to find various articles regarding the different standpoints of the changing of Italy’s asylum policy. The study of this issue has been a part of an ongoing discussion of what is going to happen with the open-endedness of the policy and current geographical events also happening are playing a major role in this. As a result, finding information about this issue was both straightforward and difficult. The fundamentals of the research were found through previous studies over Italy’s standpoint from the 1951 Geneva Convention until more recent times, 1990’s. For information regarding contemporary issues, I used reliable news articles and interviews of persons that experienced these issues firsthand. My findings supported the inconsistency of the policy and helped with the understanding of how Italy is treating current events it’s a part of.

In recent times, Italy has gone and is still continuing to go through a phenomenon of mass influx of migrants. Until the 1980’s Italy was known for being a country of emigrating, as Italians were leaving for the Americas pre World War II and then other countries of Europe post World War II (Vincenzi. Italy: A Newcomer with a Positive Attitude?). To fill the empty jobs of the now leaving Italians, immigrants have capitalized on this notion and now are coming in large numbers. The influx of immigrants has affected the policies of foreign migration, including those seeking asylum from countries of war and being persecuted under the definition of a refugee. When talking about such issues such as Italy’s asylum policy, the definitions of certain terms must be clarified for further analysis. According to the United Nations High Commission of Refugees, the official definition of a refugee is a person who "A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…” this definition was set in 1980 and used the foundation of the 1951 Geneva Convention recognition of a refugee, article 1(Hatton. European Asylum Policy). Anyone coming for anything different is simply an immigrant. Also an asylum seeker is someone who is seeking international protection but whose claim for refugee status has not been determined.

In 1951, the Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was constructed to cope with the post World War II situation. After the war, various European countries were still under communist rule and this overall policy catered to the small numbers of asylum seekers. Two important clauses in this policy was article 1 and 33. In article 1 it gives a definition of a refugee as someone who is out of his/her country and is unable or unwilling to return as a will-founded fear of persecution. Any asylum claim submitted in a signatory state must be considered under due process without consideration of whether the potential asylum seeker entered respected country legally or not. Each country that signed the Convention had their own definition of a refugee, thus giving a wide entitlement to asylum. Italy’s definition for this was an alien who in his or her country “is not allowed to exercise the democratic liberties of the Italian Constitution shall have the right to asylum (article 10 of the Italian Constitution).” Article 33 also is important because it covers the issue of repatriation, as a claimed refugee under the Convention must not be forcibly returned to their country where they are in danger of living. This is also known as the non-refoulment principle (Hatton. European Asylum Policy). The Geneva Convention provides a foundation for asylum policy but does not provide a detail set of rules regarding a mass influx of asylum seekers, as each country has it’s own definition of what a refugee is, the opposition for treating ‘spontaneous asylum seekers’ is left to the country.

The Geneva Convention policy was enacted as law 722 of July 24, 1954. With Italy’s version of the definition of a refugee, this was the only law to be passed in regards to asylum until 1990. Even though Italy signed all the important international conventions concerning this issue, the country as a whole was not committed to reach an understanding of the problem. Article 10 of the Italian constitution was interpreted by courts as a programmatic rule and not considered compulsory. Judges actually considered that a potential asylum seeker couldn’t directly ask solely under article 10 because of the lack of Parliamentary law. Up until 1990, the Italian government faced problems of immigration and the arrival of asylum seekers, and without a comprehensive approach, acted under pressure to resolving the problem for the moment. With this law enacted, Italy committed itself to granting asylum to anyone coming from a European country that met the requirements provided by the Convention. For an asylum seeker who didn’t come from a European country, the government committed itself to granting protection de facto if they too met the Geneva Convention criteria. In most cases the government granted refugee status to those coming from a non-European countries, such as refugees from Chile and Vietnam. This was done because during this period the numbers of asylum seekers from outside of Europe was very small (Vincenzi. Italy: A Newcomer with a Positive Attitude?).

It wasn’t until 1990, that Italy passed a law regarding its asylum policy. The 39/1990 law, also known as the Martelli Law was put into place to control the ever-growing migrant population of Italy. Thus attempting to start a quota system of how many persons migrated into Italian territory. There are many different clauses within this law involving immigration but the one regarding Italy’s asylum policy is article 1; where it annuls Italy’s reservation to the 1951 Geneva Convention. By doing this, it expanded Italy’s asylum policies from just those from European countries to non-European countries. It also applied a single procedure for potential asylum seekers when applying for refuge in Italy. Other than this, the Martelli law didn’t completely deal with improving the 1951 Geneva Convention because when passing this law, the Italian government did not anticipate the large influx of displaced persons escaping from wars or situations of general and widespread violence in their country of origin, arriving all together on the Italian coast, during the 1990’s (Vincenzi. Italy: A Newcomer with a Positive Attitude?).

The procedure left by the Martelli law became a very difficult procedure for incoming refugees. The main issue was the time it took to receive documents, as told by a discussion with officials from a non-government organization center helping refugees in Rome. The steps involve applying for refugee status is first one has to come into Italy on his or her own will. Then they must apply at a police station; here they are giving permission to stay in Italy until an appointment can be made to go in front of a commission to determine refugee status. This usually takes up to three months, so permission to stay is until then. If the commission granted refugee status, now the refugee has permission to stay in Italy for five years and allow traveling. Although this procedure also follows the Dublin system, which prevents the refugee from going from country to country, taking advantage of each country’s offerings for refugees. The claim will only be dealt with one state, the first one of entry. So with this, a refugee that has claimed asylum in Italy, is allowed to travel to other countries and live there without refugee assistance. If not, the refugee is to return to Italy. At the Joel Nafuma refugee center, there were many stories about refugees leaving to other countries but then returning after some time.

Currently Italy is now being faced with a number of problems because of its policy of asylum. With the political unrest of the Middle East and North Africa, there have been recent uprisings in the fight for democracy. Because of this citizens of these countries have been fleeing from the fighting and escaping to the nearest country providing asylum, Italy. Refugee camps along the southern coasts of Italy are now being flooded with those seeking refuge from the fighting. This has been a problem for the past decade and it’s only getting worst with the conflicts in North Africa. Refugee camps are completely over crowded and people are now forced to live outside in makeshift tents and there aren’t enough supplies to go around. The other problem is that the common entry points into Italy are now being flooded and it is becoming difficult for Italian officials distinguishing who is seeking asylum under the UNHCR’s current definition of a refugee or those just escaping from the fighting. These entry points are also favorite areas for human traffickers and Italian officials fear of the exploitation of the influx in these areas. There are also some reports of terrorist organizations also using the influx of these entry points for their own use of getting into Europe. What Italian government has proposed is that entry from sea should not be considered legally recognized and actions have been set forth in relation to this proposal. The Italian Navy have been intercepting boats between Italy and North Africa, treating them with medical support and relief but then turn them back. Another practice is when these displaced people and potential asylum seekers reach the coast of Italy to treat them and then take them onto planes back to Africa. All of this is done without due process, violating article 33 of the 1951 Geneva Convention. The UNHCR was granted access to interview potential asylum seekers but it wasn’t until after most were already sent back.

Till this day, Italy’s policy regarding asylum is still in question. As the civil unrest of North Africa continues it bring thousands of people seeking refuge from the fighting in their country of origin. In my opinion, Italy is using this open-endedness to their advantage so that they can refuse potential asylum seekers and considering this justified under the claims of protecting their boarders. Some argue that it overlooks article 1 of the Geneva Convention stating that each potential asylum seeker has to be considered under due process as they are returning these people as quickly as they make it to the boarders of Italy. But this goes into the controversy of the Convention. It was constructed for refugees of European countries and the Martelli Law was supposed to incorporate refugees from non-European countries. This is where the discussion comes into play, where does the Convention law of 1951 and the Martelli Law of 1990 meet?

Work Cited

“Italy 'facing refugees crisis'”. ( February 11, 2011.

Coomerasamy, James. “Inside Italy's growing refugee camps.” ( March 20, 2002.

Hatton, Timothy J. “European Asylum Policy.” National Institute Economic Review No. 194. 2005.

Kreickenbaum, Martin. “Italy carries out mass deportation of refugees.” ( October 9, 2004.

Lister, Tim. “Italy: al Qaeda will exploit North African migrant flood.” ( February 18, 2011.

Stoyanova-Yerburgh, Zornitsa. “Seeking Asylum in the EU.” ( June 11, 2008.

Vincenzi, Stefano. “Italy: A Newcomer with a Positive Attitude?” Oxford University Press 2000. Journal of Refugee Studies Vol. 13, No. 1. 2000.

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