Immigrant children on hijacked school bus to get Italian citizenship

Children on the school bus hijacked near Milan last week are to be awarded Italian nationality, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said on Wednesday, while indicating that they would have to wait until they're 18 to apply like anyone else.

Immigrant children on hijacked school bus to get Italian citizenship
Some of the children who helped stop the bus hijacking attend an award ceremony in Rome. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

The dramatic police rescue of 51 children on a bus hijacked by their Italian driver of Senegalese origin on March 20th has gripped Italy and rekindled debate about its citizenship laws.

“If there are children who are not Italian citizens, we have studied this question and we will complete the process so that they can become Italian,” Salvini said after meeting five of the children and some of the police who saved them in Rome.

READ ALSO: What does it mean to be a 'New Italian'? The question facing a divided Italy

Matteo Salvini takes a selfie with some of the children by the Trevi Fountain in Rome. Photo: AFP

Salvini, the head of the anti-immigration League party, stressed that Italian nationality would be awarded “without any variation in the law, since the law exists and works, we do not change it”.

Children of foreign parents who are born in Italy can only apply for citizenship when they reach 18.

It is not known how many of the children are concerned, but 14-year-old Ramy, born in Italy to Egyptian parents, and 13-year-old Moroccan Adam played key roles by calling police during the hijacking.

As some Italians and Ramy suggested changes to the citizenship law, Salvini had earlier told the boy: “Get elected and then you can make the law.”

The previous centre-left government said it would change the law to make it easier to grant citizenship to foreigners born in Italy but the law was never passed, largely due to opposition from the League. 

READ ALSO: Italy bus hijacker says he 'heard voices' of drowned migrant children

Photo: Flavio Lo Scalzo/AFP

Salvini has said he will try to take away the Italian nationality of the arrested bus driver, which he acquired by marrying an Italian, thanks to a tough anti-immigrant decree which became law last year. 

He also paid homage to a 13-year-old Italian boy who offered himself as a hostage while his friends were “in panic, crying and praying.”

“He is a young Italian so I can't even give him double-Italian nationality,” Salvini said. 


According to the most recent data, Italy naturalised 146,000 foreigners in 2017, more than any other European Union country, including 54,000 minors who became adults.

Nationality is a sensitive issue in Italy which is undergoing a birthrate crisis. Legally resident foreigners represent 8.5 percent of the population, rising to 9.7 percent of children under 10, 13 percent under five and 14.5 percent of children born last year.  

READ ALSO: Immigration to Italy: a look at the numbers

Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

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Reader question: Will my children get an Italian passport if born in Italy?

Obtaining Italian citizenship is not a simple matter even if you are born here, as there are many obstacles to overcome. This is what you should know about the complex process of naturalisation.

Reader question: Will my children get an Italian passport if born in Italy?

It is natural that people who are settled in Italy would want their children to have Italian citizenship.

Unlike many other countries, however, merely being born in Italy doesn’t mean the person is Italian.

If their parents were born abroad and still hold foreign passports, children will not obtain Italian citizenship at birth. 

This may sound unfair to someone coming from, say, the United States, but Italy doesn’t (in the vast majority of cases) recognise so-called “birthright citizenship” (jus soli) which would automatically grant an Italian passport to anyone born here.

Even kids who have lived here their entire lives and consider themselves to be Italian will have the same nationality as their parents and will continue to be considered foreigners by the Italian state – until and unless they become naturalised.

Some Italian politicians and political parties, particularly from the Democratic Party, are pushing for a relaxation of the rules, however at present they remain in place. 

Who is entitled to an Italian passport at birth?

Children born to Italian-citizen parents, or at least one parent who is Italian, will be automatically considered citizens of Italy by a process known as “acquisition by descent”, or jus sanguinis.

READ ALSO: How British nationals can claim Italian citizenship by descent

This applies as much to children born abroad as it does to those born in Italy.

A foreign child adopted by Italian parent(s) is subject to the same rules.

What happens if both parents are foreign nationals?

There are several scenarios to consider if you would like your child (or future child) to be Italian.

If you don’t have children yet but have a permit that allows you to permanently reside in Italy, you could apply for naturalisation after living in the country for a set number of years.

For most foreigners, ten years is the minimum length of time they will need to have lived in Italy before they become eligible to apply for citizenship through naturalisation. That period is reduced to four years for EU nationals, and five years for refugees.

READ ALSO: What’s the difference between Italian residency and citizenship?

If you become naturalised before the child is born (even if you still retain the citizenship of your former country), then he or she will be automatically Italian at birth.

If the child was born before the parent naturalised, they still automatically become an Italian citizen at the same time as the parent does – provided they are under the age of 18 and living with the naturalised parent.

“It is irrelevant that the birth occurred before or after the submission of the application for citizenship,” Giuditta De Ricco, head citizenship lawyer at the immigration firm Mazzeschi, told The Local.

Those children whose parents become Italian citizens after they turn 18, however, will need to file their own citizenship application.

For children born in Italy to foreign parents, the requirements are strict: they must reside in Italy ‘without interruption’ until the age of 18 and submit a statement of their intent to apply for citizenship within one year of their eighteenth birthday.

However, children who were born in Italy, moved away, and moved back as adults can apply for citizenship after just three continuous years of legal residency in the country – so being born on Italian soil does have some advantages when it comes to acquiring citizenship.

The Italian Air Force aerobatic unit performs on April 25, 2020, Italy's 75th Liberation Day, over the Altare della Patria monument in Rome.

The Italian Air Force aerobatic unit performs on April 25, 2020, Italy’s 75th Liberation Day, over the Altare della Patria monument in Rome. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

What happens if the parents are of different nationalities?

If the child’s parents are of different nationalities that are treated differently by the Italian state (if, for example, one parent is French and the other American), the child will be subject to the least stringent applicable naturalisation requirements. 

This means that if a child has one French and one American parent, they will be subject to French (EU) rules and eligibility periods when applying for naturalisation as an Italian citizen.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Can I have residency in Italy and another country?

A French parent can apply for Italian citizenship on their own behalf after four years of residency in Italy, and “minor children will be automatically Italian, once the parent takes the oath,” confirms De Ricco.

Usually all that’s required is that the parent produces the children’s birth certificates, although in some cases children will also be asked to attend the oath-taking ceremony with their parent.

Bear in mind that it’s important to consider whether the child’s country/ies of origin allow for dual or triple citizenship, and if not, whether you would be willing to renounce your child’s citizenship of another country in order for them to obtain Italian citizenship.

What if I moved to Italy when my children were already born?

If two non-citizens move to Italy when their children were already born, naturalisation is the means through which they may be able to gain citizenship. 

In recent years some Italian parliamentarians have proposed a ius culturae basis for citizenship – that is, acquiring citizenship via cultural assimilation, on the understanding that children quickly adapt to the culture of their country of residence.

A bill put forward by Democratic Party MP Laura Boldrini would allow children under the age of ten who have lived in Italy for at least five years and completed one school year to apply for citizenship, as well as those who arrived in Italy under the age of ten and have lived continuously in Italy up to the age of 18 (and submit their statement of intent before they turn 19). 

This bill has yet to pass in Italy, however, so there are currently no such fast-tracks in place for foreign minors born outside of the country.

What about citizenship for the third generation?

Italy is particularly lenient when it comes to awarding citizenship to foreign citizens with Italian ancestry.

Anyone who can prove they had an Italian ancestor who was alive in 1861, when Italy became a nation, or since then, can become an Italian citizen via jus sanguinis (provided the ancestor in question did not renounce their citizenship).

And this leniency also extends to those who prefer to become citizens through naturalisation – if you had an Italian parent or grandparent, you just need three years of legal residency in the country to acquire citizenship in this way.