Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 November 2015, 08:46 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Italy

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date November 2011
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Italy, November 2011, available at: [accessed 25 November 2015]
Comments In October 2015, MRG revised its World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. For the most part, overview texts were not themselves updated, but the previous 'Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples' rubric was replaced throughout with links to the relevant minority-specific reports, and a 'Resources' section was added. Refworld entries have been updated accordingly.
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Last updated: November 2011


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. The Second World War 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 industry, mostly in the north and around Rome. The south remained poor even with the prosperity brought by membership of the European Economic Community and EC 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 EC 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 more than a decade have done little to reduce the number of undocumented immigrants. This has fueled racist sentiment. Employers are willing to hire immigrants without work permits. The amnesty of 2003 drew 705,000 applicants, the second largest legalization 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.


Main languages: Italian, German, French, Greek, Albanian, Ladin, Slovene, Sardu, Friulian, Occitan

Main religions: Roman Catholicism (87%), Protestantism

Ethnic minorities include Sardu-speakers 1.3 million (2%), Friulians 700,000 (1.2%), South Tyrolese German-speakers 290,000, Roma/Gypsies 80,000-150,000, French and Franco-Provençal-speaking Aostans 90,000, Slovenes 50,000-183,000, Occitans 50,000, Ladins 31,500-33,000, Catalans 28,500, Greek-speakers 2,500-20,000 and Croatians 2,000-2,400.

Religious minorities include Muslims 1 million, Jehovah's Witnesses 231,000, Assembly of God 78,000, Hindus 75,000, Buddhists 60,000 and Jews 30,000.

New minorities include Albanians 171,567, Moroccans 170,746, Romanians 94,818, Filipinos 65,575, Chinese 64,010 and Tunisians 51,137.


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. The law also provided for the creation of a permanent assembly of linguistic minorities, but this was not convened until early 2006.

There have been about as many Italian governments as years 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.

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 year 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 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).



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