In the second half of 2014, Italy will take on the rotating presidency of the European Union. In concrete terms, this means that for six months Italian politicians and bureaucrats will be in charge—they will set the agenda of meetings and develop compromises that allow the 28 member countries of the EU to agree on common policies. To step into this role as a credible broker, however, Italy must take a number of steps to clean the largest stains on its human rights record.
1. Disavow ethnically segregated Roma camps
Italy is the only EU country to have institutionalized segregated camps for Roma. Segregated camps are in breach of human rights. Most Italian Roma camps, set up and run by local authorities, are isolated from urban centers, preventing those who live there from doing even simple things like making a daily trip to school or a job. As a young Roma told a filmmaker, “You put everyone out of town, you lock them up in a fence, and then you ask them ‘Why can’t you integrate into society?’”
Italy has, in fact, a very small Roma population, an estimated 150,000 out of nearly 60 million Italians. Italy could easily lead the way on Roma rights by taking seriously EU policy—the EU framework on national integration strategies for Roma—and showing member countries that it’s possible to enact meaningful policies and make progress on integrating Roma communities.
2. Renounce the systematic use of detention for irregular migrants
Italian CIE—identification and expulsion centers—are de facto prisons, holding people thousands of people for up to 18 months. Those held aren’t there because they’ve committed a crime, but because they don’t hold regular permits to stay in the country. The facilities are costly and inefficient. They’re also inhuman, as has been well-documented. The systematic practice of detaining migrants who might be returned to third countries flies in the face of EU standards. The EU’s Return Directive actually prescribes measures alternative to detention, such as voluntary repatriation, community placement, and lighter forms of surveillance.
Detention should be a last resort. Italy should get in line with the EU Directive and put an end to a policy that, despite populist appeal, is manifestly useless in handling migration flows. A good start could be adapting immigration quotas to match Italy’s actual need for foreign labor
3. Offer refugees reasonable assistance
Because of its geography, Italy is the entry point for many refugees trying to reach the EU. But because in Italy refugees are mostly abandoned to their fates, without real assistance or support, many try to move on to other countries. According to the EU Dublin Regulation refugees must apply for asylum in the first safe country they enter in the EU. In practice, this means that many refugees are sent back to their initial points of entry for their cases to be reviewed.
A number of recent European court cases have raised the question whether the convention should no longer be applied to Italy, because sending refugees there means exposing them to inhuman or degrading treatment. An extreme but telling example: Selaam Palace is the informal name of a former university building in Rome, currently spontaneously occupied by nearly 1000 homeless refugees who endure terrible conditions. If Italy wants to be a credible EU leader, it must get up to speed with minimum international standards and improve its treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.
4. Give citizenship to people who are already Italians—all but on paper
There are nearly twenty proposals to amend the law that regulates access to Italian citizenship. They sit in the Parliament, waiting to be discussed. Among them is one put forward by a large civil society coalition, l’Italia Sono Anch’Io—or “Italy is also me”—which has received more than 100,000 citizen signatures. Current legislation reflects Italy’s past as an emigration country, favoring citizenship for the children of people who have left the country. But Italy is now an immigration country and the rules must be adapted.
Too many children of migrants, born and raised in Italy and long term residents, cannot access citizenship because of legislation that throws up unreasonable obstacles to citizenship. This situation affects many of the 5 million migrants currently in the country. A particularly dramatic situation is that of the 30,000 young Roma who were born to parents from the former Yugoslavia but are now blocked from official status in Italy. They are currently stateless. Italy must accept that it is now a country of immigration and amend its legislation to recognize as citizens the many children and people who are already Italians in every way but in the eyes of the state.
5. Get gender equality and LGBT policies up to speed
Italy has never had a women president or prime minister. Hardly surprising in a country where media and advertisements feature images of women infused with macho stereotypes. Yet, hardly anyone in government feels compelled to take a clear stand on the abysmal depiction of women’s bodies and intellects that is standard daily fare for TV networks. Italy also does not recognize any type of civil union outside the traditional man-woman marriage, much less same sex marriage. Italy lags behind almost all EU countries, including Eastern Europe. Germany and Ireland have civil unions. France, the UK, and Spain—countries that should be Italy’s peers—have all recognized full-fledged same sex marriage. Italy has nothing. Italy must open a serious debate about gender and indicate that it’s ready to make the brave leap to modernity.
It is time for Italy to live up to its potential. Migrants, refugees, Roma, women, LGBT people—all will contribute greatly to making Italy a vibrant and modern society. Italians are open to change—in fact, there’s evidence that the country’s population is distinctly more liberal than its decision makers. According to surveys, the majority of Italians are in favor of gay marriages and support more flexible access to citizenship. But so long as the government doesn’t act to update its policies, Italy will never be taken seriously as a European leader.