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Elvis Koloko, originally from Cameroon, has lived and worked in Italy since 2007, but is not allowed to vote under current legislation, Rome Italy (Chiara Peri/JRS)
Rome, 18 June 2012 – Accompanying forced migrants in Italy means, above all, sharing their many experiences of formal and informal exclusion, and facing the lack of hospitality they encounter on a daily basis.

The bureaucracy is the most structured form of racism against forced migrants that exists in this country, providing legal reinforcement for the denial of hospitality. At every step of the way they are reminded that they do not belong, and made to feel estranged from the community of citizens.

One example of the way unwelcoming attitudes become official practice is the term 'Non-EU' citizen”. An ugly label, whose everyday use carries extremely negative connotations, it remains attached to the person even after recognition of his or her right to international protection. It can remain even if s/he pays taxes for many years and in some cases, even if the person is born in our country.

The modern conception of citizenship originated at the end of the 1700s as a way to eliminate discrimination on the basis of social class. It was an expression of equality; that is to say, 'we are all citizens'. Ironically, in the same period in which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognised the rights of all individuals, citizenship became an effective instrument of discrimination in many countries, including Italy, rather than equality.

On the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Italian unity, JRS Italy, together with 19 civil society organisations, launched a national campaign, 'I'm part of Italy too', to raise the issue of citizenship rights and publically condemn the current injustice. The campaign has collected 200,000 signatures petitioning for two legal initiatives: the reform of citizenship law, and the right of foreigners to vote in administrative elections.

A dysfunctional system. The current citizenship legislation is an unjust and inadequate interpretation of the reality in this country, in which the local community has been both multicultural and multi-ethnic for years. This outdated conception of citizenship, linked almost exclusively to jus sanguinis, the right of blood, is a cause of confusion and legal inconsistency, even in situations where a person is fully and happily integrated.

For children born in Italy to foreign parents, or those who come here at a very young age, it is impossible to automatically acquire citizenship. Although these children grow up in Italy, go to our schools and speak our language and dialects, at the age of 18 they must follow the same bureaucratic procedure as adult immigrants before they can become citizens.

The sad result of this practice is that at some point in their lives, more than 600,000 adolescents make the painful discovery that they are not Italians, and must grapple with the feeling of suddenly being strangers in a place they once called home. Aside from the obligation and bureaucratic red tape of renewing residence permits – only too familiar to those who have been through the experience – activities like going on a school trip abroad, or being chosen for national athletics competitions suddenly become elusive dreams.

Although local elections were held in many councils throughout the nation on 6 and 7 May last, not everyone living here was able to vote. More than 3.2 million non-EU citizens permanently resident in the country, approximately 5.3 percent of the population, are not represented by the local administrations governing the cities in which they live, study, work, and contribute to the local economic and social development. Legally-resident foreign citizens are denied the right to vote.

In 1992 the Council of Europe adopted the Convention on the Participation of Foreigners in Public Life at Local Level. Chapter C of this text obliges signatory states “to grant to every foreign resident the right to vote and to stand for election in local authority elections, provided that he fulfills the same legal requirements as apply to nationals and furthermore has been a lawful and habitual resident in the State concerned for the 5 years preceding the elections”.

Although Italy ratified the convention on 8 March 1994, it has not yet been implemented in full. Only the chapters A and B were implemented: referring to freedoms of expression, assembly and association, and the establishment of consultative bodies to represent foreign residents at local level. A reservation was placed on chapter C. The cardinal principle of full participation in public life at local level – the right to vote and be elected in local elections – was excluded.

Standing up for our neighbours. According to statistics published by Caritas Italiana Fondazione Migrantes on 1 January 2010, more than five million persons of foreign origin live in Italy, comprising around eight percent of the population. Of this figure approximately one-fifth are children and adolescents, most of whom born in the country. They and their families face insurmountable limitations which perpetuate injustice, inequality and discrimination.

Article three of our constitution establishes the principle of equality between individuals, committing the state to remove barriers that prevent the full achievement of this aim. For millions of residents, this principle has been disregarded.

The campaign 'I'm part of Italy too' has given voice to many Italians who consider equality a fundamental value of every democracy, and see the decision to become a citizen as a choice to appreciate and value. JRS Italy fully shares in the conviction that the struggle for the recognition of rights for every citizen is decisive for our future as a country. We all must take responsibility and work so that Italy can become a more open, welcoming and civilised country.

Until parliament examines draft laws submitted by citizens, we will to bring these urgent issues to the centre of public debate. We will continue to call upon the authorities, political and social forces in the world of work and culture, and to all those who live in Italy.

Everyone should play a constructive role in building a future based on coexistence, justice and equality, in which every individual born and living in our country is welcomed as fully part of the community.

Chiara Peri, JRS Italy Programme Manager