Naples, Italy – A partial six-month amnesty for Italy’s undocumented migrants was announced this month in a move described by some as “a watershed moment” in the country’s migration policy and “an act of cynicism” by others.
“Thanks to the choice made by this government, the invisible will become less invisible,” said Teresa Bellanova, Italy’s agriculture minister, in her emotional announcement speech on May 13.
The former trade unionist was referring to people working in the agriculture and fishing industries, as well as care workers who have been without a residency permit.
The measure, which grants a six-month residency, has been praised by CGIL-FLAI, the country’s biggest farmworkers’ union, as an “historic achievement”.
But migrant activists have criticised the limited nature of the amnesty, which will affect only about 200,000 people, according to the Italian government’s estimates.
The total number of undocumented migrants in the country ranges between 560,000 to 700,000, according to various estimates.
“The tears of the minister provided a really farcical scene,” said Abdel El Mir, a spokesperson of Movement of Migrants and Refugees of Naples (MMRN) – a group of migrants and Italians of foreign origin with up to 300 members, based in the southern city of Naples.
The group held some of the first street protests in the city after the recent easing of the coronavirus lockdown.
“If there are about 700,000 undocumented people in Italy and you choose to regularise only a small fraction of them, that is not an act of courage, but of cynicism. You’re only giving papers to the workforce you need, not caring at all about people’s health,” El Mir told Al Jazeera.
Italy made it clear that its provision was only intended to fill gaps in the labour market as the coronavirus pandemic hit the country.
Agriculture lobbies had warned the government that Italy would have to throw away huge amounts of fruit and vegetables because there was nobody to pick them, worsening the effects of a shutdown costing the food sector seven billion euros ($7.58bn).
“We are not making a favour to immigrant citizens by giving them a residence permit,” said Bellanova. “We are simply addressing our need for additional workforce.”
Under her scheme, the power to regularise migrants lies predominantly with landowners, who will be able to request residence permits for their workers by providing an employment contract and paying a 500-euro ($548) fee.
In response, the country’s migrant agriculture workers went on a nationwide strike on May 21, protesting against employment sponsorship being the basis for residency permits.
Aboubakar Soumahoro, the strike organiser, accused the government of “putting fruit and vegetables above people’s lives”.
The strike was not endorsed by any major union.
“In Italy, immigration is only ever understood as permissible when it is seen as having economic utility,” said Camilla Hawthorne, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California Santa Cruz, who has studied migrant activism in Italy.
The country passed its first comprehensive immigration legislation in 1990, in the wake of the racially motivated murder of Jerry Masslo. He was an asylum seeker from apartheid South Africa who worked as an undocumented agriculture labourer in the region of Naples.
According to Hawthorne, the current situation resembles the 1990 case, because a humanitarian rhetoric was used to pass immigration laws at the time, but “every subsequent law linked residence permits to work contracts”.
El Mir said the recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic was likely to produce a spike in the number of undocumented people as the employment rates fall, leaving them more vulnerable.
“Lacking a document means lacking every right, including ordinary access to healthcare,” he said.
The group of migrants and refugees El Mir is associated with run a free legal help desk, a small health surgery and an Italian language school in Naples. They are providing assistance to more than 4,000 people.
During the coronavirus lockdown, the group set up a mutual aid network that delivered food and other essential goods to 120 migrant households.
Their activities also serve as a point of inquiry into the challenges faced by migrants, and informs the political strategy of the movement.
A citizen of Bangladesh, who has asked not to be identified, requested their assistance shortly after the amnesty was introduced.
He has been living and working in Italy without a permit for fours years, but as a shoe factory worker he is excluded from the regularisation initiative.
“An employer asked me to pay 5,000 euros (about $5,487) for a work contract in agriculture. But where am I going to get that money?” he wrote in a text message to El Mir.
El Mir said such cases were frequent, and were a direct result of the government’s discriminatory provision, but even before the pandemic, foreigners in Italy were under major stress.
He pointed to the so-called “security decrees”, a set of measures passed last year by the former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini that restricted access to asylum and drastically cut public services available to migrants.
After the far-right leader was removed from office in September last year, the new government failed to deliver on an initial pledge to reverse his most controversial anti-migrant legislation.
In a further blow to the expectations of human rights groups, Italy renewed a much-criticised deal with Libya to curb migration, and closed its ports to asylum seekers during the pandemic.
“Too many people think that not having a minister that shouts against migrants means that migration policy has changed. Reality says otherwise,” El Mir said.
The fact that “even after the fall of Salvini the government has continued many of the same right-wing policies” has pushed migrant activists “to create autonomous political spaces, away from the more traditional sights of political organising in Italy”, said Hawthorne.
“What gets lost in mainstream anti-racist activism – with its emphasis on tolerance and inclusivity as the antidote to the far-right rhetoric – is the structural critique of racism that is not just about populist leaders saying really racist things,” Hawthorne said.
“It is part of a broader system of capitalist globalisation and border fortification and militarism that work together to produce a racist system that disadvantages Black people across the spectrum, whether they were born in Italy, or they migrated to Italy,” she added.
In their demonstrations, the Naples activists tried to address the daily issues affecting migrants’ lives, such as the delay in issuance of residence permits or access to healthcare while also pointing at what they see as the structural causes of racism in Italy.
“We can’t skip over the fact that Italy openly sells arms to dictators and deals with criminal organisations in Africa; or that ENI [Italy’s state-owned oil and gas company] ravages entire African regions,” El Mir said.
He said such criticism does not always go down well with the wider anti-racist movement.
“They tell us that these issues are divisive. But what for them is divisive in terms of political consent, for us is a matter of life,” he said.