June 20, 2013 / 5:49 PM / 6 years ago

Italians debate citizenship rights amid resurgent racism

ROME (Reuters) - Savio Warnakulasuriya, born in Rome this month, will have to wait for 18 years before he can be sure of being able to remain in the country where he came into the world.

Elena Lin (2nd L), who was born in Italy to Chinese parents, prays in a Buddhist Pagoda in Rome June 9, 2013. Italy's Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge, who was born in Democratic Republic of Congo and came to Italy when she was 18, has fuelled a debate about citizenship laws that many immigrants say prevent them from fully integrating into society and mean that even children born in Italy cannot gain citizenship until they turn 18. Picture taken June 9, 2013. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

Until then his right to stay in Italy is tied to the permits of his Sri Lankan parents to work as domestic helpers. These papers have to be renewed every two years.

Savio is one of many children born in Italy who Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge says should have citizenship rights at birth, a proposal that has shocked many Italians and drawn a torrent of racist abuse against her.

Italy bears the brunt of clandestine seaborne migration to southern Europe, with thousands reaching its long Mediterranean shores every year in crammed rickety boats. Parties such as the opposition Northern League campaign against boosting immigrant rights, pointing to cultural differences and crime rates.

Kyenge, born in Congo and now Italy’s first black minister, says it is time for a change in approach to citizenship starting with ensuring that immigrant children are not held back from fully integrating with their peers.

For Savio’s father, Fernando, an easing in citizenship rules would be welcome. “The sooner they give our son citizenship, the better. I am a little worried, we want him to carry on living and working here without problems,” he said in an interview.

Erika Arribasplata, a 34-year-old secretary who was born in Rome to Argentinian parents, remembers the difficulties she faced as a child to fully integrate at school because she lacked rights to Italian citizenship.


“I remember when we went on a school trip to England, I couldn’t go through border controls with my group, I had to take a whole other route where I had to wait longer and go through more checks - it was really annoying,” she said.

“But the most annoying thing was being tied to my parents’ permit, and the insecurity that came with that, because I was born here and did not feel part of their culture but I was stuck in the middle,” Arribasplata said.

She made a successful application for citizenship at 18, but others are not so lucky.

Italy’s low fertility rate at 1.4 children per woman means that it will need fresh blood to maintain its ageing population.

But due to bureaucratic processes that Kyenge wants to reduce, some Italian-born children of immigrants can find their citizenship applications rejected at 18 because, for example, they spent some time away from Italy as children.

“We are talking about young people who could become the future leaders of this country, or could lose themselves in the street if suddenly at 18 they find themselves to be different due to some bureaucratic error,” Kyenge told reporters this week.

On Saturday she unveiled a plan to make it easier for children of immigrants to apply for citizenship upon adulthood as part of a series of measures Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s government is introducing to cut red tape and pull the economy out of recession.

Kyenge said she would also be heading to the European parliament soon to propose a common EU-wide approach to citizenship rules.


But while her proposals are welcomed by some, she is also facing daily insults and racial slurs from groups who oppose her and her appointment as minister in March.

One Northern League member, Mario Borghezio, was expelled from the Europe of Freedom and Democracy group in the European parliament earlier this month for remarks about her, including saying she wanted to impose Congo’s “tribal traditions” on Italy.

Last week, a local party official for the League caused a national uproar when she posted a comment on her Facebook page suggesting Kyenge should be raped so she can understand how victims of crimes committed by immigrants feel.

Foad Aodi, President of the Foreign Doctors in Italy Association (AMSI), said he believed any changes to citizenship rights should be introduced carefully.

“You need to be cautious, and go through a slow cultural process, so you don’t shock. In my view many people are shocked: not all Italians are ready for this change,” Aodi said. Complaints of racial abuse against foreign doctors in Italy, he said, had risen by about 20 percent in the past two months.

John, who is from China, holds his son, who was born in Italy, as he works in a cafe in Rome June 14, 2013. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

Kyenge’s plans to change citizenship rules may be limited in practice by differences in views in Letta’s left-right coalition government. Some immigrants are happy to push on regardless.

Cafe owner Lia Jin from Zhejiang in China, whose daughter has just given birth to a son, said not having Italian citizenship posed no obstacles to her family.

“I really couldn’t care less. One day we might go back to China. There is no point asking and it doesn’t make any difference to us,” she said.

Additional reporting by Tony Gentile; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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