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Fascist legacies: Italy’s approach to mobility and mobile labour

Italy abolished Mussolini-era laws restricting internal mobility in the 1960s, yet troubling continuities exist between these regulations and current efforts to control Italy’s migrant population.

Center for Identification and Expulsion (CIE) in Rome. Stefano Montesi/Demotix. All Rights Reserved.

Italy’s legal and policy approach to immigration is widely seen as a relatively recent improvisation by a state adjusting to the country’s new status as a migrant-receiving area. And yet Italy’s history of labour mobility stretches back to pre-unitary years, and includes both spectacular outward movements across Europe and continents as well as micro and macro internal movements of populations from the impoverished countryside and the country’s southern area. This article intends to reconnect the country’s present approach to mobility to its past history of internal migration. In doing this, it will highlight specific elements of continuity in particular with fascist rules and practices over internal labour mobility. 

The Italian state has endeavoured to control its highly mobile population ever since its creation in 1861. In doing so, it produced a range of marginal subjects that were later condensed into the figure of the ‘southern emigrant’. One such mechanism of control linked residence to work contracts. During the 1920s and 1930s, the fascist regime set up a complex system of labour institutions and population registry offices. These served to establish a dividing line between local and ‘foreign’ workers, namely those who formally enjoyed Italian citizenship but who had moved from impoverished rural areas to the cities. Only workers officially resident and enrolled in the fascist union were allowed to be regularly employed under this system. The rest were encouraged to establish rural communities within the national territory and work the fields and marshlands there. Behind the fascist rhetoric about ruralising Italy, such measures sought to address what was perceived as a more pressing problem: the need to protect the urban middle-class from poor immigrants, who were considered as parasites living in idleness and spreading corruption.

This administrative solution to internal mobility did not make Italians less mobile, but local administrators’ fiddling with unemployment lists allowed for the creation of a pool of irregular cheap labour recruited in seasonal work and other exploitative sectors. The refusal to grant legal domicile to these workers made them all the more marginal as their access to health services and social housing depended on their enrolment in municipal registries.

Mussolini’s anti-urban law of 1939 proved very useful for post-war reconstruction. It was, in fact, applied by Republican Italy up to 1961, creating within cities enclaves of exploitable workers and, more generally, a ‘flexible’ industrialisation through the use of the irregular employment of non-residents. This system linking work and residence was applied in the context of marked inequalities between an industrial north and a poor south, inequalities that underpinned the large-scale movements from south to north. It also formed the legal and institutional framework and provided the policy vocabulary that would shape future immigration policies and approaches towards new migrants coming from outside Europe.

The rules that, from the 1960s onward, began to regulate immigration flows were not made in a vacuum. They followed a well-established pattern in which migrant people, relegated to the margins of any form of social citizenship, were treated exclusively as workers. The evolution of Italian immigration policy shows a constant preoccupation with limiting entries and refusing migrants the rights afforded by Italian workers, even though by the 1980s it was clear that migrant workers were becoming a structural component of the Italian labour market. It was not until 1990 that Italy recognised basic health and social rights for migrant workers, and the possibility of asylum for non-EU citizens. Italy’s first coherent law on immigration, Consolidated Act n. 40 of 1998, was a compromise born out of leftist and catholic efforts to balance immigration control with social integration principles. This resulted in an uneasy mixture of entry quotas, new detention centres, and humanitarian provisions to protect and assist victims of trafficking. The last of these often translated into paternalistic rehabilitation programmes to redeem street prostitutes.

The Act also attempted to loosen the link between entry and labour recruitment from abroad through the introduction of a sponsor figure, who would guarantee a prospective migrant’s board and lodging while they searched for work. However, this provision was abolished 2002 under Law n. 189 (the so-called Bossi-Fini law), and the balance between migrants’ rights and immigration control began to tilt once again towards the latter. The emphasis was now on patrolling borders and the forced return of unauthorised migrants. Moreover, bilateral agreements with third countries—especially with Libya in 2003 and 2007—sought to establish an external system of border control (including, in the case of Libya, the financing of detention centres there). The Bossi-Fini law also made visa rules for entry more restrictive than ever and tied entry more securely to a work contract through the so-called ‘contratto di soggiorno’ (residence contract’).

By 2009 the circle was closed with the passing of a series of decrees forming the ‘security package’. The old system of internal controls was back. Full powers were granted to mayors on matters of security, including the power to refuse the enrolment of certain citizens in municipal registries. The system of immigration control—tight visa entries combined with a link between a work contract and the right to stay—could now be reinforced with administrative rules aimed at controlling migrants’ mobility inside Italy and excluding them from social rights and services. The separating line between immigration management and migrant rights policies, which previous centre-left coalition governments had tried to maintain in principle if not in practice, was now completely dissolved. Migrants who enter the national territory for the first time are now requested to sign an ‘integration agreement’ (‘Accordo di Integrazione’) with the state to show that they are committed to respect and learn Italian civic norms, culture and language if they want to stay in the country.

Just as Mussolini’s anti-urban laws had marked immigrants as a troublesome source of disorder, and just as southern workers had been excluded from protection as workers and from rights as citizens during post-war reconstruction, so mayors can now limit the right of residence to specific individuals deemed ‘undesirable’. These individuals are the various extra-comunitari (non-EU citizens), neo-comunitari (new EU citizens, in particular Romanians and Bulgarians), and the numerous refugees and asylum seekers who, after the North African crisis and consequent ‘emergency’ reception policy, have come to form a complex constellation of differently excluded citizens within contemporary Italian society.

The militarised reception structures consolidated inside the Centri Polifunzionali, include: reception centres for refugees and asylum seekers, temporary reception centres for other migrants, and centres for identification and expulsion. Alongside these are the various shelters for victims of trafficking and reception centres for unaccompanied migrant children. In effect the Centri Polifunzionali is a centralised depot where a variety of migrant groups are made invisible and controllable. The same migrants are, at the same time, used as an army of cheap workers in agriculture, in private households, and other sectors, labouring to keep Italy’s slack economy going.

Mussolini’s anti-urban law was abolished in 1961 following the joint role of a strong labour movement and of the Communist Party. Yet, the Duce would be proud to learn that it never stops inspiring Italian rulers in creating a class of non-resident exploitable workers.

This piece is based on Patrizia’s longer article ‘From the (e)migrant to the (im)migrant’: the Italian nation-state and its migration rhetoric and history’, recently published in Transnational Social Review: A Social Work Journal.

About the author

Patrizia Testai has researched migrant labour, trafficking, prostitution, and the social and legal construction of victims of sex trafficking within the system of protection and assistance programmes designed for them in Italy. She is currently involved with the organisation Defence for Children Italy in carrying out field research on reception services for migrant people in Italy, especially unaccompanied migrant children.


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