Sahar Priano, after graduating from UC Berkeley with degrees in Peace in Conflict Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, and Italian Studies, is completing her Master’s Degree at the University of Bologna’s Law School studying migration, human rights, and development. Priano is currently researching the crossroads between conflict and climate change.


This article focuses on the migrant integration policy in force in Italy until the rise of ex-Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, and the 2018 rightwing shift in Italian politics. As the policy agenda of that period required a localized approach to migrant integration, this study examines the integration methods adopted by southern Italian towns. The purpose is to emphasize the power of local governments in determining migrant integration, and to demonstrate how a localized approach to migration may entail a spectrum of results, ranging from negative consequences (such as deathly violence) to international-local partnerships that make way for unprecedented multicultural communities.

Integration at the National Level

As Italy transitioned in the 1970s from an emigration state to an immigration state, lawmakers attempted to create a realistic national policy agenda that would create a structure to facilitate the integration of new immigrants. The 1998 Turco-Napolitano Law originally provided the legal structure for integration programming. However, the most significant legislative support for integration came with the 2002 Bossi-Fini Law, which established the Protection System for Asylum Seekers and Refugees (SPRAR). The law was followed by the Italian Charter of the Values, Citizenship, and Integration and by the 2010 Plan for Integration and Security. These legislative instruments created a national apparatus for integration: however, following the Italian policy norm, they required implementation at the local level by regional and provincial authorities. Thus, local authorities remained responsible for most aspects of migrants’ lives, such as housing, education, health care, and residency permits, which control immigrants’ legal right to stay.

Integration at the Local Level: Distribution of funding

While a national policy framework was created, funding and accountability have been largely missing on the national scale. In 2002, the government allocated over €65 million for law enforcement and over €63 million for integration programs. However, in 2003, law enforcement spending climbed to over €164 million and the allotment for immigration support was reduced to less than €39 million. In 2004, both amounts fell to €115 million and €29 million respectively. Following the overall trend, militarization remained the most funded migration policy with integration demands hardly being met with their reduced budgets.

In addition to limited national funding, the way resources are regionally distributed complicated the implementation of integration policy. In 2016 and 2017, there were five million foreigners in Italy, representing 10.7% of northern-Italy population and 4.2% of southern-Italy population. However, as the South hosts a sizeable irregular migrant population of new arrivals and seasonal migrant laborers (many of whom do not have the legal right to stay), the actual number of migrants is unknown in fact one tenth remain unaccounted for. UNCHR reported that from 2015 to 2017 almost 200,000 migrants landed on southern Italians shores each year, which exceeded the reported 4.2% of the population yearly. Moreover, in 2015, only 4,000 seasonal workers permits were issued, which vastly underrepresents the number of migrant laborers estimated at 37% of the total workforce.

As national funding for integration is proportionally distributed according to the number of legally registered migrants, Northern Italy is often the recipient of a greater portion of funding than Southern Italy. The lack of equitable funding can lead to significant inequality across policy implementation at the local level.

Integration at the Local Level: The experience in Rosarno

Rosarno, Calabria, a small agricultural community, exemplifies the impact of limited funding available in Southern Italy. The town is politically rightwing (Silvio Berlusconi won the vote in 2008 and 2013 with large margins) and harbors anti-immigrant sentiment, while at the same time hosting a substantial immigrant population mostly composed of seasonal agricultural laborers without residency permits.

Migrants have difficulty obtaining residence permits because of their recent or seasonal arrival. Those who are eligible often wait months to years for their application results and without these permits, migrants are exploited as cheap or free labor. Organized crime also targets the legality of migrants to create an enslaved workforce, often in sex trafficking. Yet organized crime is not the only beneficiary, the entire agriculture industry relies on the illegality of migrants. Roundups and refoulements (forced repatriation of refugees) are timed with the end of the orange harvest season to speed up and force the seasonal removal of the migrant workforce. The immigrant’s nomadic work excludes them from the nationalized funding apparatus, reserved for those with residence permits, and adds to their isolation on a local level.

Alessandra Corrado, in her article “Clandestini in the Orange Towns: Migrations and Racisms in Calabria’s Agriculture”, emphasizes the negative effects of communities unable to provide integration programing, by stating that perpetual social isolation and rampant exploitation was the result of a “racist system” peculiar to that local context. The absence of integration programs has had grave consequences, as the increased segregation has led to multiple migrant protests against corruption and unequal treatment as well as harassment, threats and deadly violence against migrant laborers specifically after 2008. The continuous conflict in Rosarno demonstrates that residence permits insinuate the promise of civil rights, but in practice have restricted funds to facilitate integration, creating an unstable environment for migrants, who are vulnerable to exploitation. With little national oversight localized policy in Rosarno caused extreme insecurity and fell short of countrywide integration goals.

Integration at the Local Level: The experience in Riace

Riace, a small town located not far from Rosarno in Calabria, has a uniquely pro-immigrant local policy based on the assumption that immigrants are an asset and an opportunity for economic rebirth in the middle of the South’s depreciating economy.

The town has implemented unprecedented integration programs, and the impetus for these programs may lie in the social fabric of the community. Domenico Lucano, the now famous former mayor of Riace, stated that because the South is “marked by the history of departure and emigration” immigrants bring a “promising future.” Both townspeople and other city officials have recognized their region’s connection to the entire Mediterranean, which is reflected in their food, music, and local language. Throughout the duration of Lucano’s tenure, Riace’s politics have changed. The percentage of citizens  that voted for Berlusconi in 2008 (44%) was reduced by half (23%) in 2013. Furthermore, Lucano was reelected twice, suggesting that his use of the transnational narrative that links southerners to the wider Mediterranean has functioned to garner support for immigrant integration. 

With a warmer perception of immigration policies, this town has demonstrated an alternative model of integration policy, by circumventing government funding and implementing relatively successful regional integration programs. Riace used capital directly from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to avoid the necessity of residence permits to implement integration programming. A similar experience is that of the nearby town of Camini, where the EUROCOOP Servizi Società Cooperativa Sociale – supported by both the European Union and Projects Abroad – established “Jungi Mundu,” a community center that implements integration programming, offering a space for local Italians and migrants to interact through events and classes. The influx of international investments has allowed towns previously prone to economic down turn and high rates of emigration to implement relatively successful immigrant integration programs that have invested in the social and economic wellbeing of the entire community.[1]


During the Pre-Salvini period, integration was supported on the national scale but not implemented equally throughout Italy. Local governments had to manage migrant populations, and their approaches were as diverse as their political leanings. With unequal resource distribution, integration in the South was severely defunded, which led to violence in some contexts while promoting the creation of effective partnerships between local and international authorities in others. Both Riace and Rosarno serve point of reference from which to critique the larger Italian integration system that works to actualize ambitious political goals unsupported by a national framework.

[1] However, it is important to note that since the establishment of these programs, Lucano has been brought to trial by the Ex-Interior Minister Matteo Salvini for his use of public funds in favor of immigrants. Lucano has been prohibited from returning to Riace and since their inception, the successful integration programs have faded from international headlines, losing the international support they once had. Regardless of the specific temporal moment and the ambiguous future for these acceptance models, the local integration programs offered the unique opportunity to utilize the history of emigration and the South’s unique identity to support a pro-immigrant political shift. The integration programs’ previous success provides a useful example of how local initiatives can establish local-international networks and bridge the gap between policy and implementation.