At the end of 2000, there were about 13,700 refugees and asylum seekers in need of protection in Italy. These included 1,650 refugees granted status during the year and an estimated 12,000 asylum seekers pending a first-instance decision on their cases.

An estimated 16,000 asylum seekers filed claims in Italy during 2000, about half the number of applicants requesting asylum in 1999. Although a breakdown of applicants by country of origin was not available for 2000, a significant portion, if not a majority, were thought to be Kurds from Turkey and Iraq.

During 2000, the Italian authorities issued merits decisions on some 25,000 applications, granting refugee status in 1,650 cases, an approval rate of 6.6 percent. Individuals representing 23,250 cases were denied asylum during the year. Of the largest groups of asylum seekers whose cases were decided in 2000, Iranian nationals had the highest approval rate (42.9 percent), followed by nationals of Albania (28.6 percent). However, 91 percent of decisions made during 2000 concerned Yugoslav, Iraqi, and Turkish applicants, who had approval rates of 4 percent, 2.6 percent, and 6 percent, respectively. Although these approval rates were low, many applicants of these nationalities reportedly were denied status because they did not appear for their asylum interviews and presumably departed for other countries of the European Union (EU).

Asylum Procedure

Although the Italian government began considering revisions to its asylum law in 1997, it had not passed any new legislation by the end of 2000.

Pending legislative changes, the asylum provisions of the Martelli Law of 1990 continued to govern the asylum procedure. The Martelli Law gives legal authority to reject asylum seekers at the border if they arrive from third countries that have signed the UN Refugee Convention and have spent more time in such countries than is required to transit through them.

A person wishing to apply for asylum in Italy is required to submit a written application to the headquarters of the provincial police (Questura) where he or she is located. The Questura then transmits his or her application to the Central Commission for Recognition of Refugee Status, the competent authority for deciding asylum claims. Although the law requires the commission to interview applicants and issue first-instance decisions within 15 days, in practice, it took the commission 12 to 14 months during 2000 to render decisions.

Because asylum applicants were eligible for assistance for only their first 45 days in Italy, delays in adjudicating applications meant that asylum seekers went without government assistance for lengthy periods, often for more than one year, while they awaited decisions. Asylum seekers are issued renewable 45-day residence permits to await the commission's decision. Asylum seekers in Italy may not work during the asylum procedure and have no access to subsidized health care, except in emergencies.

An applicant may appeal a negative decision within 60 days to the administrative court in the region where filing a claim. Further appeals to the Council of State and the President of Italy are possible. After a denial in the second instance, however, the applicant may be deported or issued an order to leave the country.


In June 1998, the Italian government approved a plan to grant residence permits to certain categories of undocumented immigrants who entered the country before March 26, 1998, including those with family members holding Italian residence permits and those with jobs or firm offers of employment. In 2000, Italy granted residence permits to 63,000 undocumented foreigners under the amnesty's terms, bringing the number of undocumented foreigners who have received permits to 224,000 since 1998.

A similar amnesty in 1995 and 1996 enabled about 220,000 undocumented foreigners working in Italy to obtain legal status.

Boat Arrivals

Although their numbers appeared to drop in 2000, thousands of asylum seekers and migrants continued to arrive by boat in Italy throughout the year, almost all using smugglers who often transported them in unsafe vessels, adding to the perils of the journey. In place of the 1999 large-scale influx of ethnic Albanians and Roma from Kosovo were thousands of new boat migrants from Iraq, Turkey, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. Most of the boat arrivals, including those with passengers from farther afield, arrived from Albania and Montenegro. Some larger ships transporting the undocumented also arrived from eastern Mediterranean ports in Turkey and elsewhere during the year.

During the first seven months of the year, the Italian Navy reportedly apprehended 16,100 undocumented foreigners attempting to enter Italy by boat, down from 35,000 in the same period during the previous year. The Italian government attributed the decrease to its cooperation with Albanian authorities in cracking down on smugglers in Albanian ports. Nevertheless, for each of those caught attempting to reach Italian shores, the Italian government reportedly estimated that two or three undocumented foreigners managed to slip into Italy undetected.

Others died in the attempt. On New Year's Day, an Italy-bound vessel transporting 59 undocumented migrants and asylum seekers, mostly from China, sank in the 44-mile channel that separates Albania from Italy, killing all on board. In early May, an Italian coast guard cutter reportedly collided with a boat ferrying undocumented Albanians to Italy, sinking the smuggler's boat and resulting in at least 13 deaths. Among the other would-be immigrant fatalities reported during the year were the drownings of three Iraqi Kurds on December 21, who were part of a group of 45 undocumented migrants forced to jump ship 200 meters from coast.


In part responding to EU pressure to shore up its borders, Italy adopted a new immigration law on February 19, 1998. The new law replaced all provisions of the Martelli Law of 1990 except those regulating the asylum procedure. Aspects of the law nevertheless touch on asylum.

Most significantly in the eyes of Italy's EU partners, the new law provides for the detention of undocumented entrants for up to 30 days pending their deportation. Previously, Italy had issued expulsion orders to undocumented entrants, requiring them to leave the country within 15 days. Because Italian authorities did not enforce the expulsion orders, however, many migrants and asylum seekers used the 15 days during which they were to comply with the removal order to travel onward to countries farther north.

The change had dramatic results. Expulsions from Italy increased by a factor of ten, from between 4,000 and 5,000 in previous years to 54,000 in 1998. In 1999 and 2000, the number of expulsions increased yet again to an estimated 65,000, and 66,000, respectively.

Italy's move to enforce expulsion orders reportedly does not prevent asylum seekers from filing applications in the country. The 1998 immigration law also imposes stiffer penalties for those smuggling undocumented migrants and asylum seekers.

Other Border Controls

In April 1998, Italy began full implementation of the Schengen Convention, a multilateral accord that has eliminated border controls between a subset of EU states (see box, p. 198).

While the arrival of large numbers of undocumented asylum seekers in Italy in years past had prompted other Schengen Member States to demand that Italy better police its coastline and restrict access to undocumented foreigners, Italy turned the tables on its European neighbors in 2000, complaining that the arrival of undocumented foreigners was an international problem that Italy was being left to cope with alone. Following the deaths of two members of the Italian coast guard who were killed when their vessel collided with a smuggler's boat in July, Italy's finance minister remarked that the EU "has to understand that this is not just an Italian problem. It's a European problem."

In October, the Italian government announced plans to exchange border patrol officers with Germany, an agreement that Italy said it hoped would serve as a first step toward the creation of an EU agency for border patrols. In November, Greece agreed to the stationing of Italian police in certain Greek ports, whose job it would be to prevent the onward travel of ships transporting the undocumented to Italy.

Italy also enlisted the support of Slovenia and Albania during the year, calling for increased cooperation to crack down on human trafficking and smuggling. In 1998, Italy also signed bilateral agreements with Morocco and Tunisia aimed at preventing undocumented migrants from leaving those countries for Italy. However, Italian foreign minister Lamberto Dini remarked that such bilateral agreements would never be truly effective in bringing the problem of undocumented migration under control, again stressing the Italian government's position that a greater international role was needed.


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