Analysis: For migrants, red tape turns Italy’s work permit program into a mirage

In May 2020, then Italian Minister of Agriculture Teresa Bellanova wept with emotion on television announcing a decree giving thousands of illegal immigrants the opportunity to work legally on farms and as domestic helpers.

However, a year later, the system has hardly progressed, a victim of the tortuous bureaucracy of the country and its struggle to integrate the new arrivals.

Frank Agbontaen, a 30-year-old Nigerian, has been in Italy since 2016. Like several thousand people, he arrived on a rickety boat from Libya.

After surviving for years on undeclared odd jobs and small change in exchange for swept sidewalks, he was offered a job under the regularization program as a housekeeper in Rome.

He applied for the holy grail of a work permit in July. Since then, he says he hasn’t heard anything.

“I had so much hope … I thought everything would be resolved in a few weeks or months,” Agbontaen told Reuters. “It’s so frustrating, I pray to God every day for positive news.”

He is far from alone. In Rome, as of April 15, none of the more than 16,000 applicants had obtained a work permit. In Milan, only 441 had received one, out of more than 26,000 requests, according to data from migrant advocacy group Ero Straniero (I was a foreigner).

In Italy, the harvest is often carried out by Africans and Indians. Home help is mainly entrusted to women from Eastern Europe.

In both sectors, the underground economy and the exploitation of workers are rife, and ex-minister Bellanova, herself a former farm worker, had presented the project on television as a way to make “the invisible.” .. less invisible “.

“These people will have a work permit and we will help them regain their identity and their dignity,” she said.

Coinciding with the first brutal wave of the coronavirus outbreak in Italy, the program was also urgently needed to ensure crops were picked and the elderly received care at home.


As of April 15, however, of the 220,000 people nationwide who had applied for a permit from the Interior Ministry, only 11,000, or 5%, had received one, according to Ero Straniero.

A spokesperson for the Interior Ministry told Reuters that figures updated as of May 31 showed that 14% of applications had been approved by the ministry, which had authorized police to grant a work permit. He was unable to say how many permits had been issued.

Only 1.5% of requests were rejected by the ministry. Eighty-four percent had not been treated.

The dismal progress is emblematic of a chronic Italian problem: legislation proudly announced by politicians but then poorly enforced, if at all enforced.

It’s an obstacle Prime Minister Mario Draghi is well aware of as he tries to streamline state bureaucracy to allow Italy to spend more than € 200 billion ($ 245 billion) in funds. of the European Union for infrastructure projects.

The application for a work permit requires the submission of numerous documents online by the migrant and his potential employer, who must also pay a non-refundable fee of 500 euros.

After the screening of the initial applications, the worker and the employer are called for an interview. If everything is in order, the worker receives a completed form which he must send to the police to receive his permit.

Asked to explain to Parliament why so few requests had been processed, the government cited in April “the complexity of the procedural requirements”, with “multiple intermediate steps”.

These involve local branches of the Interior Ministry known as prefectures, the police, local labor inspectors and the national social security agency.

The May 2020 decree provided for the hiring of 800 temporary workers to help process applications. The first were not actually taken care of until March of this year. The Interior Ministry spokesman said the 800 have now been hired and 721 deployed.

Coronavirus-induced social distancing has also slowed progress, the government said, reducing the number of people who can be called for an interview.


The Home Office website shows that Agbontaen’s request is awaiting approval from the local labor inspectorate, which Reuters tried for days to call for information. No one picked up the phone.

Unlike the former British or French colonial powers, migrants were scarce in Italy until the mid-1980s, when they began to arrive in increasing numbers from Africa and Eastern Europe.

More than three decades later, little progress has been made in integrating them into society at large.

It is extremely rare in Italy to see a doctor, lawyer, teacher, or even a black or Asian bus or taxi driver. Much of it is unemployed or in the informal economy. They are targeted by the Right League, the most popular party in Italy, and its close ally the Brothers of Italy.

Agbontaen, who worked as a tiler in Nigeria, sees the work permit as the key to getting a stable job in construction or a factory. Then he hopes to be joined by his wife and his 10-year-old daughter, who have remained in their country of origin.

“All those years fighting for something that you can never achieve, it drives you crazy, it’s not a good situation,” he said. “But I will never give up.”

($ 1 = 0.8169 euros)

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