Immigration in Italy: What are the real numbers?

Right-wing parties put immigration at the centre of their campaigns ahead of the recent election. But beyond the political rhetoric, how many migrants really come every year, and what does this mean for Italy?

An Ethiopian refugee stands outside a shopfront in the south Italian town of Riace on June 22, 2011.
An Ethiopian refugee stands outside a shopfront in the south Italian town of Riace on June 22, 2011. Photo by MARIO LAPORTA / AFP.

Italy’s anti-immigrant parties made huge gains at the election on September 25th with promises to control what they call a migrant “invasion”.

Giorgia Meloni, leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy party and the country’s probable next prime minister, has regularly called for a “naval blockade” at sea to prevent “illegal departures” to Italy.

READ ALSO: ‘I plan to leave’: Foreigners in Italy fear for their futures if far right wins election

She has spoken out against proposals to introduce a birthright citizenship (ius soli) law, and the centre-left Democratic Party’s support for ‘Ius Scholae’ citizenship rights for children who are born to foreign parents but complete their education in Italy, declaring such plans a left-wing conspiracy “to replace Italians with immigrants”.

But beyond the political rhetoric, what do the numbers on immigration and migrants in Italy really show? We looked at the official data to understand the wider picture.

How many immigrants?

The headline figure is that there were just under 5.2 million foreign residents in Italy as of January 1st, 2022.

This is around 8.7 percent of the country’s total population of 59 million.

The 5.2 million figure doesn’t include former foreign residents who have acquired Italian citizenship. Taking these people into account, the number of foreign residents plus formerly foreign residents who became new Italian citizens in the past decade totalled approximately 6.8 million as of January 2021.

READ ALSO: How many residence permits does Italy grant to non-EU nationals?

Anti-immigrant League leader Matteo Salvini visits a migrant reception centre on the island of Lampedusa as part of his election campaign. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

Either way, this is a lot less than many appear to think: a study in 2018 found that Italians believe immigrants from outside the EU alone make up 25 percent – an entire quarter – of Italy’s total population.

These figures come from the 2022 annual report from Italy’s National Statistics Office, Istat.

These numbers of course refer to registered residents. While the nature of irregular migration means it is difficult to monitor, migration study foundation ISMU estimated in 2018 that there were also around 500,000 people living in Italy illegally, equivalent to 0.9 percent of the population, among them failed asylum seekers and those who have overstayed their visas.

Where do Italy’s immigrants come from?

Of the foreign nationals already in Italy, Romanian citizens make up the largest group, followed by people from Albania, Morocco, China and Ukraine, according to a 2021 report from the Labour Ministry.

Istat’s immigration statistics portal, Immigrati.Stat, only keeps track of non-EU arrivals in Italy, so we have only a partial picture when it comes to recent arrivals.

In 2020 (the most recent year for which figures are available), 32 percent of all non-EU arrivals came from Asia, 29 percent from Africa, 22 percent from European countries, and 16 percent from North, Central and South America.

Because of the pandemic, there were fewer arrivals in 2020 than in previous years – 106,503, compared to 177,254 in 2019 – but figures for both years show a very similar breakdown in terms of  immigrants’ countries of origin.

Italy issued 274,100 residence permits in 2021, a 31-percent increase on the previous year. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

Albania, Morocco, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh are consistently the top five citizenships held by new non-EU arrivals to Italy since 2019.

These figures are also partially reflected in the nationalities acquiring new Italian citizenship. According to Istat’s 2022 report, the two biggest countries of origin for new Italian citizens are Albania and Morocco, followed by Romania, Brazil, India, Argentina, Peru, Tunisia, France and Macedonia.

Why do they come?

By far the highest proportion of visas and residence permits given to non-EU migrants entering Italy today (57 percent in 2019 and 58 percent in 2020) are granted for family reasons.

Istat’s 2022 annual report suggests that this is because of ‘stabilisation processes’ that have occurred among migrants who originally came to Italy for work, settled, and are now bringing over family members.

READ ALSO: Anti-immigrant far right ignores Italy’s dependence on foreign labour

A smaller proportion of arrivals come for asylum/protection reasons (16 percent in 2019 and 13 percent in 2020), work (6 percent in 2019 and 10 percent in 2020), study (12 percent in 2019 and 8 percent in 2020), or for elective residency, health, or religious reasons (10 percent in 2019 and 11 percent in 2020).

What do they do?

Of 1,927,937 foreign nationals in the workforce in 2020, the largest sector – comprising over a million people – was ‘industry in the narrow sense’, which according to Istat refers to all industrial jobs that exclude construction.

Just over half a million worked in agriculture, followed by 80,109 working in service jobs, 32,767 in construction, and 16,953 in ‘trade and repairs’.

Asylum seekers

Istat’s 2022 annual report says that asylum applications in Italy reached a peak in 2016 and 2017, around the height of Europe’s so-called refugee crisis, when they accounted for about 30 percent of all non-EU entries.

Since 2018, there has been a steady decline in permits issued for international protection reasons, “both in absolute terms and as a share of total issuances.”

READ ALSO: How would victory for Italy’s far right impact foreigners’ lives?

Even at the height of the crisis, the report notes, the number of entry permits issued for family reasons far exceeded those for granted for asylum reasons.

The profiles of asylum seekers entering Italy tend to show substantial change year on year, subject to global events and crises. In 2021, Istat’s report says, 31,000 asylum permits were issued, of which the greatest number (20 percent) were awarded to people from Pakistan, followed by Bangladesh (16 percent) and Nigeria (10 percent).

The numbers of people seeking protection coming from Africa – in particular Egypt, Mali and Ivory Coast – rose in 2021, while the numbers of asylum seekers coming from South America – in particular Venezuela and Columbia – fell compared to 2020.

The proportion of minors seeking asylum has risen from just over 3 percent in 2016 to 9.5 percent in 2021 – rising to more than 23 percent for arrivals coming from Nigeria, El Salvador, Afghanistan and Peru.

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How does Italy’s overseas constituencies system work in elections?

Italy is one of a small number of countries whose citizens living overseas have their own dedicated parliamentarians. How does the system work - and how did Italians abroad vote in the 2022 elections?

How does Italy's overseas constituencies system work in elections?

How does the system work?

The overseas constituencies system was introduced via a 2001 law that gave Italians living abroad the right to vote by postal ballot for the first time. It was first used to elect parliamentarians in 2006.

There are four overseas constituencies in Italian parliament: Europe, including Russia, Turkey and Greenland; North and Central America; South America; and Africa, Asia, Oceania and Antarctica.

Each constituency gets at least one MP and one senator, with the remaining MPs divided up proportionally according to how many Italians are living in each territory in the election year in question.

READ ALSO: Who can vote in Italy’s elections?

Currently Europe has three MPs, North and Central America two, South America two, and Africa, Asia, Oceania and Antarctica one.

Voters registered overseas are sent their ballot papers by their local consulate in advance of the election, along with instructions on how to fill them out and the deadline for returning them.

Italy isn’t the only country with overseas constituencies: Algeria, Angola, Cape Verde, Colombia, Croatia, Ecuador, France, Mozambique, Panama, Portugal, Romania and Tunisia all have similar systems.

How many overseas parliamentarians are there?

Until 2020, when Italians voted to reduce their number of elected representatives by about one third, there were 18 overseas parliamentarians (12 MPs and six senators).

As of the 2022 elections, there are 12 overseas parliamentarians in all – eight MPs and four senators. That accounts for two percent of the total number of seats in Italian parliament.

READ ALSO: An introductory guide to the Italian political system

Italian ballot papers.

Italians living abroad can vote for their own representatives by postal ballot. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

With 100,000 Italians emigrating every year, there are double the number of Italians living abroad in 2022 (around 6 million) compared to 2003, according to Il Sole 24 Ore.

This means roughly nine percent of Italian citizens now live abroad – which has led some campaigners to call for an increase in the number of seats allocated to overseas constituents.

What do they do?

Just like those at home, overseas parliamentarians represent the interests of their constituents. In 2007 former South America deputy and senator Ricardo Merlo founded the political party MAIE (the Associative Movement of Italians Abroad) which is dedicated to the needs of Italians abroad, particularly in South America.

Overseas parliamentarians must reside in the constituency they represent – which is why Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni’s pick for South America senator, former F1 driver Emerson Fittipaldi, hurriedly moved his official residence from Miami to Sao Paolo in August 2022 to run in the latest elections (he was unsuccessful).

The fact that they represent the interests of Italians spread over such a wide geographical area (four continents, in the case of Africa, Asia, Oceania and Antarctica) has led some to argue that overseas parliamentarians perform a largely symbolic, rather than practical, function.

EXPLAINED: What will a far-right government mean for Italy?

The need to collect votes across such a large number of jurisdictions has also led to allegations – and sometimes findings – of fraud. In 2021, South America senator Adriano Cario’s vote was invalidated after a handwriting analysis concluded multiple ballots in his favour had been filled out by the same person.

Despite all this, when then-prime minister Matteo Renzi held a referendum in 2016 on whether Italians abroad should have their senate seats taken away, almost 60 percent of Italians voted against the idea. Ironically, the majority of Italians overseas – 65 percent – voted in favour of abolishing their own senate representation.

President of the Italian Senate Maria Elisabetta Alberti Casellati (C) reads the results of the vote in the Senate hall after a vote of confidence to the prime minister at Palazzo Madama in Rome on July 14, 2022.

The new Italian parliament will have to convene no later than October 15th. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

How did Italians abroad vote in the latest elections?

As was the case in the 2016 referendum, Italians abroad voted differently to their home country counterparts.

28 percent voted for the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), 26 percent for the hard-right centrodestra coalition, 13 percent for MAIE, and 8.6 percent for the populist Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), with the remainder going to a large number of smaller parties.

That’s in contrast to Italy, where 44 percent of votes went to the centrodestra, 26 percent to the centre-left coalition, and 15 percent to M5S.

READ ALSO: Giorgia Meloni’s party will likely win the elections – but will it last?

The final result was seven PD parliamentarians (four MPs, three senators), two parliamentarians for the centrodestra alliance (both MPs), two for MAIE (one MP, one senator), and one MP for M5S.

Europe now has one PD, one centrodestra and one M5S deputy and one PD senator; North and Central America have one PD and one centrodestra deputy and one PD senator; South America has one PD and one MAIE deputy and one MAIE senator; and Africa, Asia, Oceania and Antarctica have one PD deputy and one PD senator.

Turnout in 2022 was the lowest it has ever been among Italians abroad, with just 27 percent of those eligible bothering to vote – a drop of 3.4 percent on the 2018 elections.