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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Italy : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date November 2011
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Italy : Overview, November 2011, available at: [accessed 7 October 2015]
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.

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.


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.


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.


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).

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

Despite a weight of legislation guaranteeing their rights, most indigenous minorities are not well protected. The small amount of government funding earmarked for school programmes and access to public services in minority languages has been disbursed with long delays. Bilingual status with Italian only exists in practice for German in Bolzano province (South Tyrol) and for French in the Valle d'Aosta. The 1999 law has had a positive impact, however, and more is being done to promote cultural activities in minority languages.

There are several problems facing the minorities. Almost every improvement seems to require at least one piece of new legislation, often at more than one level of government. The minority languages are often not standardized and few teaching materials exist. But work on this has increased. The languages tend to have a rural and old-fashioned image that is unappealing to their own young people. The requirement that 15 per cent of the population should be from the minority before measures are taken to cater for the language is at odds with the mobility of modern lifestyles. There are many scattered pockets of minority speakers who are neglected because they do not reach this minimum.

Different minorities living in close proximity can be hostile to one another, for example the German-speakers and Ladins of Trentino-Alto Adige.

While ethnic minorities are just now beginning to make some progress within their regions, there are political parties campaigning to reshape the Italian regions into larger areas. The Northern League, founded in 1991, wants to create a new area, Padania, with its capital in Mantua. This would encompass the main economic centres of northern Italy. The aim is for federal autonomy within the Italian state, but one section of the party wants independence. If either were to be put into practice, the economic gap between the north and the rest of Italy, especially the south, would widen. However, the Northern League combined with the Movement for Autonomy, a party set up in 2005 by a number of southern autonomist parties, to fight the 2006 elections.

Both the Northern League and the Movement for Autonomy have been accused of being racist; accusations which they refute. Both are mainly right wing, but the Northern League, in particular, encompasses a wide range of views.

Most new immigrants settle in northern Italy. The Northern League spearheaded the 2002 immigration law and the January 2006 law reducing the penalties for incitement to racial hatred and discrimination. Illegal immigration continues and some politicians consider that the mass amnesties of the last 10 years have encouraged undocumented immigrants. The permits granted under amnesty are easier to obtain than going through the official process. Italy rarely grants refugee status to asylum seekers.

The European Commission on Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) notes in its December 2005 report on Italy: 'The use of racist and xenophobic discourse in politics has intensified and targets in particular non-EU citizens, Roma, Sinti and Muslims. The vulnerability of these and other groups to racism and racial discrimination has been increased by the lack of political support for protection of individuals against incitement to racial violence and discrimination.'

ECRI criticizes the government for its lack of policy for the Roma and Sinti, and recommends protection of the same kind accorded to indigenous linguistic minorities with the use of existing regional policies to overcome the problems of non-territoriality. It urges the government to take immediate steps to tackle the Roma's lack of passports and residence permits. Many have no nationality and rely on temporary permits. The government response indicatesd that nothing willas likely to change.

ECRI urges the government to grant citizenship to children born in Italy and to reduce the time period required for non-citizens to qualify for naturalization. A new Draft Law on Citizenship was being examined by parliament in 2007. In April 2008, a centre-right coalition headed by Silvio Berlusconi returned to power pledging to tighten restrictions on immigration. A Berlusconi ally elected as mayor of Rome pledged to expel 20,000 immigrants. The initiatives appeared largely directed at fellow EU member state Romania, the origin of many Roma migrants. In May 2008, Amnesty International condemned Italian politicians from the right and left for embracing increasingly racist language. In July 2008, the European Parliament voted to condemn the new government's policy of fingerprinting members of the Roma community and called on the European Commission to review the legality of the practice. Maurizio Pagani, Vice President of Opera Nomadi – the main organisation working with nomadic communities in Italy – told MRG in an interview in July 2008 that Roma and Sinti communities feel threatened now more than ever before. "We believe there is a serious risk of ethnic discrimination and that we are moving towards the design of discriminatory public policies," he said.

The treatment of Roma and migrants by the Italian authorities prompted the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay to undertake her first-ever country visit in 2010. On 11 March, the same day the UN human rights chief visited Italy, Amnesty International published a report examining the 'Nomad Plan', a scheme developed under the 2008 'Nomad Emergency' presidential decree which allows forced evictions and resettlements of camps on the outskirts of Rome. Amnesty found the plan discriminatory and in violation of the housing rights of Roma, who had not been consulted before evictions started in July 2009. According to Amnesty, an estimated 6,000 Roma are to be resettled into just 13 camps, and over 100 settlements are to be dismantled. The major demolition of Roma camps could leave as many as 1,000 Roma homeless. In January 2010 Italian police began moving Roma out of one of the largest and oldest camps in Europe. The Castilio 900 camp in Rome has been in existence for over 40 years and is home to 600 people. Improving the living conditions of many Roma, who have been living without running water and lacking basic hygienic facilities, could be welcomed, but, as the Italy expert of Amnesty stated, 'the situation is the result of years of neglect, inadequate policies and discrimination by successive administrations'. The 'plan is incomplete and risks making the situation for many other Roma even worse. It is the wrong answer.' The UN Human Rights Commissioner spoke out on 'the excessive resort to repressive measures such as police surveillance and forced evictions; but the practice continued. In 2010 in Milan alone at least 61 forced evictions were conducted, rendering many Sinti and Roma homeless.

A landmark decision in the case COHRE v. Italy delivered by the Council of Europe's European Committee of Social Rights may call a halt to forced evictions. On 3 November 2010 the European Committee found Italy in violation of the prohibition on discrimination and violations of the rights of Roma people to adequate housing; social, legal and economic protection; protection against poverty and social exclusion; and the right of migrant Roma families to protection and assistance. The destruction of camps and the illegal evictions without notice and without offering alternative housing was condemned.

In May 2009, Italy forcibly returned more than 200 migrants to Libya, without screening them to discover if any might be refugees or victims of trafficking, pregnant women, unaccompanied children, sick or injured. Boats carrying the migrants were intercepted at sea, and Italy persuaded Libya to receive the passengers following an earlier agreement. Joint naval patrols and other returns soon followed. Libya has no asylum procedure and has not signed the 1951 United Nations (UN) Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Many migrants are held indefinitely in detention centres where conditions were reported to be poor.

Migrants also faced evictions after a two days rioting in the city of Rosarno in 2010. Some 320 African migrants were taken to an emergency centre in the aftermath of violent events that broke out after injuries were inflicted on two immigrants by a group of local youth using air rifles. Human rights groups and the opposition parties criticized Italy's migration policies, raising concerns that the violence has revealed the consequences of persistent xenophobic and anti-immigrant discourse that fuels prejudice and tensions between migrants and the local population. Jorge Bustamante and Githu Muigai, the UN Special Rapporteurs on the human rights of migrants and on contemporary forms of racism, respectively, issued a joint statement on the unrest stating: 'Violence, be it perpetrated by Italians or migrant workers, must be addressed in the most vigorous manner through the rule of law and human rights should always be protected, regardless of immigration laws.' Just a month later however, racial violence broke out again, this time in Milan after the stabbing of a young Egyptian man, allegedly by a South Americans. The Reuters news agency reported on the event and on the reaction of a member of the anti-immigrant party Northern League calling for expulsions 'house by house, floor by floor'. The party has steadily increased in popularity and made significant gains in the 2010 local and regional elections.

In the wake of uprisings across North Africa in 2011, one tiny Italian island has become the front line for migrants for seeking better life in Europe. Lampedusa has a long history of receiving immigrants but struggled with the overflow of migrants following the collapse of the Tunisian regime in spring this year – and its residents have been in open revolt. Berlusconi put pressure on both the EU and French Prime

Minister Nicolas Sarkozy to help deal with Italy's migrants, but Sarkozy responded by temporarily closing France's border with Italy to Tunisians who wanted to enter France. Berlusconi has done a deal with Tunisia to start a repatriation process, but Libyan and Sub-Saharan refugees are coming in far bigger boats and increasing numbers. In August 2011 parliament approved a new law expanding from 6 to 18 months the period that irregular migrants can be held in detention centres – the maximum allowed under EU law – as the country continues to struggle with an influx of migrants and refugees from North Africa and other regions. The decision is based on the EU Returns Directive, which was due to be transposed into national law by 24 December 2010.

The European Network against Racism (ENAR) criticized the Italian government in its 2005 report for having no national plan for including new immigrants in the electoral process. Some cities, including Genoa, Venice and Turin, and regions including Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, have programmes to extend the vote in local elections to new minorities.

There has been an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment since the events of 11 September 2001. This antagonism has also given rise to an increase in anti-Semitism.

There is no agreement as yet between the Italian government and the Muslim community regarding state funding for the Muslim religion as there is no hierarchy, and therefore no single representative body for Muslims in Italy. Different Muslim denominations and nationalities add to the problems of establishing state support. The government had negotiated agreements for the Mormons, the Orthodox Church of the Constantinople Patriarchate, the Apostolic Church, Hindus, and Soka Gakkai (Japanese Buddhists) but these were not put into effect as of mid-2007.

Banning the burqa has also been on the agenda of the Berlusconi government for some time, the draft law was approved in August 2011 moving the country closer to France, Belgium and parts of Spain, which have outlawed the face-covering garment.

There is a strong network of human rights and anti-racism NGOs throughout Italy, which have secured protection for minorities when legislation was lacking. The European Network against Racism (ENAR) comments in its 2009-10 report on Italy that no efforts have been made to combat racism as a crime or to seriously deal with the social inclusion of migrants. Policies to combat poverty have unfairly excluded migrants. A discriminatory attitude has especially characterized public services, challenging the idea that education and health are fundamental rights for all.

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