Nearly One Million Italians Are Fighting to Be Recognised as Citizens

So-called "invisible Italians" are disenfranchised, and struggle to gain access to healthcare and jobs.
A woman takes part in a protest demanding reform of the citizenship law in Italy, in Rome in February 2017
A woman takes part in a protest demanding reform of the citizenship law in Italy, in Rome in February 2017. Photo:  FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP via Getty Images

It was in 2004 when the Rome-born-and-raised TV reporter Sonny Olumati first applied for Italian citizenship. The son of Nigerian parents, he has lived in Italy his entire life. But even now, at the age of 34, he’s  still waiting to be recognised as an Italian citizen. 

Like almost a million people in the country, Sonny doesn't have Italian citizenship due to his parents being immigrants. These “invisible Italians” are denied many fundamental rights, such as the right to vote, and many struggle to access healthcare and certain job opportunities.

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Advocating for reform of citizenship laws, thousands of young people have united under the banner of Italiani senza cittadinanza, a movement that has been campaigning for years for the rights of, as the name suggests, “Italians without citizenship”.

The process of obtaining citizenship in Italy is extremely convoluted. The current law, which dates back to 1992, awards Italian citizenship mainly through blood ties, making it difficult for people with non-Italian parents to become citizens. 

Individuals like Sonny, who were born in Italy, can directly apply for their Italian citizenship at the age of 18, but must complete the whole process by their 19th birthday. If they don’t, the process starts all over again. In a country known for its lengthy bureaucracy, one year is an impossibly narrow window of time to secure the required documents.

In fact, time is lost either waiting for documentation from other countries or by Italian administrators providing inaccurate information. "I remember bringing all the mandatory documents to the office only to be told I had to translate them, which nobody ever mentioned before," Sonny tells VICE News. "These documents are also often useless. I was asked for my criminal record in Nigeria. I was born and raised here, there is no reason for me to have a criminal record in Nigeria.”

The process has been further complicated by the introduction of the so-called “Security Decrees”. Promoted by former Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the hard-right Lega party, they doubled the number of years to process a citizenship application from two to four – effective retroactively. The decrees have only recently been blandly modified by new regulations that take the processing times to three years, this time not retroactively.

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“I can’t help but think that there’s a political choice behind this laziness in addressing citizenship laws,” says Fatjona Lamçe, an activist who moved from Albania when she was 11. ”Why else would it take them years to complete a practice that could be done in minutes?” Now a mother of two, she’s still waiting on her citizenship having recently been threatened with deportation.

“Since I’m married to an Italian citizen, I was able to obtain a special residence permit which lasts longer but entails regular checks to see whether ours is a real marriage,” she says. “The thing is, we moved before one of these checks happened so we weren’t found at home. Local authorities automatically assumed the marriage was fake and sent me an expulsion paper.”

Lamçe continues: “I had just given birth to my daughter and went straight to the police headquarters. When they saw me with a three-month-old baby in my arms, they promised to fix the issue immediately.”

The problem, however, goes beyond the length of the administrative procedures. Not holding Italian citizenship affects all areas of life, including access to healthcare. Lamçe recalls that, for example, at the time her daughter was born, she was waiting for her residence permit to be renewed. “When my residence permit expires, so does my health care coverage. Therefore, I was told that, should I not renew it, I would have had to pay the cost of my treatments, including those relating to the birth of my daughter.”

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The system also has a huge impact on job opportunities. Public tenders are reserved for Italian citizens, thus excluding Italians by right from jobs and scholarships. “Not only are we excluded from countless opportunities, but our residence rights are based on our income,” says Jovana Kuzman, a spokesperson for “Italiani senza cittadinanza”.

Kuzman moved from Serbia aged two. Now studying Political Science and International Relations in Rome, she’s an activist working with Oxfam Italy. “My citizenship depends on my mother’s income and permanent residence document,” she says. “Therefore, should anything happen to her, I would have to leave the country that is my home in every respect.”

Italians without citizenship find themselves in an extremely precarious situation. They’re required to pay for costly administrative practices, which take years to be completed, while remaining perfect citizens. ”We’re supposed to be infallible,” Kuzman adds. “This shows a complete lack of understanding of the social and economic fabric of Italy. If Italian citizens themselves struggle having a stable income for four years, how are we supposed to do it?”

Italy has deeply changed since 1992 but citizenship laws don’t reflect this transformation, and a million people are now left out of a voting process that could change that. “In Italy, we believe that being Italian means having an Italian name and being white,” Kuzman says. “We just don’t envisage anything different.”