Italy's parliament recently greenlighted a controversial decree to crack down on irregular migration. Known as the Cutro decree — in reference to the southern town in Calabria where more than 90 people died in a shipwreck last February — the legislation severely limits a special protection status Italian authorities can grant to migrants who do not qualify for asylum.
Italy has recorded more than 42,000 irregular arrivals since the beginning of 2023, almost four times as many as in the same period last year and the Italian government claims special protection incentivizes migrants to start dangerous trips to the country.
"Special protection creates attractive conditions for immigration and we will eliminate it," said Nicola Molteni of the right-wing League party, whose currently serving as the undersecretary at the Interior Ministry.
Agriculture Minister Francesco Lollobrigida, from Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's far-right Brothers of Italy party, recently sparked controversy, warning against the "ethnic replacement" of Italians by migrants, a notion widely regarded as racist.
Before the decree, people offered special protection status could live in Italy for two years, renew their residence permit and convert it into a working permit. It was granted to asylum seekers who risked being persecuted in their country of origin, those fleeing war and natural disasters, as well as those with family ties or high levels of economic integration in Italy.
What changes with the new migration rules
Now, all that has changed. While special protection remains available for those at risk of torture, inhumane treatment or systematic rights violations in their home nation, the new law narrows access by scrapping criteria based on family links of economic integration.
"If a person is not at terrible risk in their home country, but in the meantime has started a family or had children in Italy, the commission [assessing residence status] will not take this into account," explains Paolo De Stefani, a professor in international law at the University of Padova.
People fleeing natural disasters or seeking treatment for severe medical conditions will also see their access to special protection restricted. Most importantly, however, it will not be possible for them to convert it into a work permit.
Language courses and legal advice will also be scrapped in reception centers.
Things will change, too, for unaccompanied minors. They are still entitled to special protection permits until they turn 18; they can extend it for one more year, but cannot convert it into a work permit.
"This means killing the prospects of integration for people arriving in Italy at a very young age," said De Stefani. "What type of educational path will be imagined for those with such prospects?"
In contrast with the otherwise restrictive nature of the law, the law offers a new possibility for victims of forced marriage to apply for special protection.
Migrants fear for their future
While those who already benefit or who have already requested special protection will not be affected by the new legislation, many agree the climate towards migrants has become more harsh.
Sarja Kubally, a Gambian national currently under special protection, says Italy has not been the same since a new government headed by the far right came to power.
"I am thinking of leaving, I am happy here, but now I am afraid of staying with this situation," he told DW.
Although Kubally is confident he himself will get a work permit, he fears others will miss out on opportunities he benefited from.
"Special protection really changes your life. It allows you to work, to study. You can do many things and give back," Kubally said. "If someone needs help, you need to help them, not make it even harder for them. We should put humanity first."
The uncertainty for Ali, who asked not to use his real name for security reasons, is far greater. The Pakistani national, who spent four years in Greece where he maintains local authorities did not accept his asylum claim, has been living in Italy since 2021. He now has a three-year work contract and is learning Italian, but his asylum request was recently rejected. He is now appealing the decision. Should his bid be turned down again, Ali will not be able to apply for special protection under the new rules.
"I lost four years of my life in Greece, but here in Italy I am well integrated, I have a job, I want to stay here," Ali told DW. "Well-integrated people should be allowed to stay. I haven't thought about [what I would do if I couldn't access special protection]. Going back to Pakistan is unthinkable."
Less special protection, more precariousness
Italy has always provided special protection, except from 2018-2020 when former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini scrapped it temporarily . Though Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni claims otherwise, Italy is not the only country which offers this type of protection. Though different terminology is used, 18 other states in Europe provide similar special protections.
Critics warn restricting access to special protection will push more migrants into an undocumented life outside the law and rob vulnerable people of fundamental rights — especially as the move follows another decree which limits the work of nonprofit rescue ships operating in the Mediterranean, and Italy last month declaring a six-month state of emergency to curb migration flows.
Valeria Carlini, a spokesperson for the Italian Council for Refugees, says the law will not only harm people seeking protection but also local societies, where migrants have begun building a life and contributing to the socioeconomic fabric.
Law professor De Stefani believes the legislation ultimately undermines integration — especially for irregular migrants — and aims to put an emergency band-aid on migration flows. "People will have poorer conditions in Italy and eventually seek better protection and living standards in other European countries," he said.
Like many of her predecessor governments, Meloni has been demanding more solidarity and better coordination among EU countries to tackle migration flows.
"This law might be seen as the latest maneuver to pressure Europe into seriously tackling migration issues, but it is betting with someone else's life," said De Stefani.
Edited by: Rob Mudge