A Jogtudományi Intézet blogoldala

Migration and the rise of populism: changes in the migration policy of Germany and Italy

2021. február 16. 23:37
Andrea Crescenzi
Réka Friedery
researcher, Institute for International Legal Studies (ISGI), National Research Council of Italy (CNR); research fellow, Centre for Social Sciences Institute for Legal Studies (CSS ILS)

Migration policy overlaps other policy areas, for example integration policy, interior policy, defence policy and anti-discrimination policy. As a response to the sudden influx of migrants in 2015, and parallel to rising populistic movements, Germany and Italy started to adapt radical policies and measures in connection with immigration. Italy, as a frontline country, and Germany, as the destination country have adopted permissive measures as well as restrictive measures. Hence, in the following we analyse some of the main measures from the above mentioned areas to demonstrate that they intended either to thwart the rise of populistic movements in connection with migration or were favoured by populistic movements in the sense that they intended to curb immigration.

1. Germany

In 2015, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to leave the German borders open to war refugees from Syria as a humanitarian necessity. The migration flow caused ethnic, cultural and religious tensions and triggered heated discussion about security, identity and society, among other topics. In 2016, asylum migration remained at the centre of the migration debate, and the focus shifted towards the integration of recognised refugees into society. This was accompanied by the events during the New Year celebrations of 2015/16 in Cologne and other German cities, where hundreds of women experienced sexual assaults. The suspects were foreigners (with refugees among them) and German nationals. This led to a number of legal initiatives, including the Act on the Faster Expulsion of Criminal Foreigners and Extended Reasons for Refusing Refugee Recognition to Criminal Asylum Seekers, which entered into force in March 2016. Furthermore, the Act on the Introduction of Fast Track Asylum Procedures (Asylum Package II) brought about a number of changes, among them the possibility to introduce fast-track procedures in special reception centres and restrictions on family reunification for certain beneficiaries of subsidiary protection. Even before the adoption of the Act, it generated heated debates, especially the provisions regarding family reunification.

The number of arrivals became a priority of the government, and Germany headed the EU deal with Turkey aimed at slowing the flow of refugees to Europe. In 2016, the Heads of State and Government of the EU Member States and the Turkish Prime Minister signed the EU–Turkey Agreement that provided for the return of all third-country nationals who irregularly entered the EU from Turkey and were not in need of protection, and for the admission of Syrian refugees from Turkey into the EU Member States. The Turkish government pledged to better control its coastlines and accept rejected asylum seekers in exchange for 6 billion euros to help meet the needs of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees and the possibility of visa-free travel for Turks in the EU. The agreement was strongly criticised in both the German political and civil sphere. Also in 2016, the border crossings along the Balkan route were closed by the neighbouring states and together with the EU–Turkey Agreement it led to a significant decrease in the number of new arrivals. These measures significantly reduced the number of asylum applications in 2017 and 2018.

Germany also maintained that the operation “Mare Nostrum” was an important pull factor for the increased migration flows. Operation Mare Nostrum was launched by the Italian Government in 2013-2014 as a military and humanitarian operation aimed at tackling the humanitarian emergency due to the dramatic increase in migration flows across the Mediterranean Sea. The German Federal Minister of Interior, Thomas de Maizière even called the operation a “bridge to Europe” that offered more opportunity for human smuggling and irregular migration.

Besides introducing several restrictive measures and focusing on the reduction of arrivals, integrating of refugees was an important issue. Numerous integration measures were taken up and consolidated across Germany. The Integration Act in 2016 reflected important changes in integration policy: it provided good prospects for asylum seekers to remain and also for those whose deportation had been suspended, but also for further obligations and possibilities of sanctions. The provisions and especially the differentiation according to the prospect to stay were subject to controversial debates, too.

In 2019, there was an extensive reform of German asylum and migration legislation. Seven laws were enacted as part of the so-called “migration package”, and numerous changes were introduced to the Asylum Act, the Residence Act and the Asylum Seekers Benefits Act. The Skilled Workers’ Immigration Act and the Act on Temporary Suspension of Deportation for Training and Employment stood at the centre of these changes. The objective of the Skilled Immigration Act was to create a legislative framework for selective and increased immigration of skilled workers from third countries. The latter act was passed to provide certain foreigners, whose deportation had been temporarily suspended, with legal certainty regarding their residence status and to create the prospect of a long-term stay. We can observe that economic immigration, especially for highly skilled foreigners, remains a top priority in promoting the labour market integration of refugees.

2. Italy

In recent years, Italy’s immigration policies have been adopted on an emergency basis, mainly focusing on migrant flows and arrivals by sea. This approach inevitably affected the response of both right- and left-wing parties and have had an impact on the measures taken. Generally, the narrative of right-wing parties is that the migration flow is mostly uncontrolled and that migrants come to Italy to seek a job. Once in Italy, they find a saturated labour market, end up living by their wits, and are often recruited by criminal organisations. For these reasons, the entry of migrants should be prevented, or else the situation in the country would become even more unbearable. The traditional narrative of left-wing parties is that poor people are fleeing from wars and are ready to risk their lives crossing the desert and the sea in order to reach Italy. Left-wing parties propose accepting and integrating migrants. They also point to Italy’s need for a young population to counter the decline in birth rate and the ageing of the population.

In the years 2015 to 2020, the main political and legislative measures adopted in the area of immigration were affected by the pressure on the Italian asylum system, as a result of a strong increase in migration flows due to the ongoing war in Syria and the situation following the Arab Spring. From a political perspective, the same years saw the succession of four governments with four different Ministers of Home Affairs from 2014.

The policies adopted in this period by the Ministers of Home Affairs, despite some differences, were all intended to manage and contain the arrivals of migrants on Italian shores. This aim was pursued through the implementation of the relocation system adopted by the European Commission and the strengthening of relations with migrants’ countries of origin and transit.

On the first point, Italy introduced a Roadmap (“Ministry Home Affairs, Roadmap”, 2015) and a Ministerial Circular (“Ministry Home Affairs, Circular Ministerial”, 2015) adopting the relocation measures taken by the European Commission, and it set up six hotspots (Pozzallo, Porto Empedocle, Trapani, Lampedusa, Augusta and Taranto) as first reception and identification centres. However, this approach encountered strong operational and organisational delays, which, combined with poor cooperation on the part of other EU Member States, made it possible to attain the expected objective only to a very limited extent.

With regard to the second point, several cooperation agreements with migrants’ countries of origin or transit were concluded in order to control departures and manage returns, for example Memorandums signed with Sudan in 2016 and Libya in 2017. These kinds of Agreements, despite being in line with the indications outlined in the European Agenda on Migration, were widely criticised since they were signed with non-democratic states or with countries that are not very respectful of human rights. A second remark concerns the preventive nature of these Memorandums. Unlike the re-admission agreements traditionally signed by Italy, which allowed the repatriation of people once their protection application had been rejected following a substantive examination, the Memorandums concern people who might be in need of protection, but whose application is not examined because that is the responsibility of the country of origin.

A last remark regards the violation of the right to non-refoulement. Indeed, several scholars and experts of civil society believe that, through these Memorandums, Italy is not only delegating the decision-making to migrants’ countries of origin or transit but also the refoulements. It must be pointed out that Italy was already condemned by the ECHR in 2012 for the violation of Article 3 (prohibition of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment), and Article 13 (right to an effective remedy), as well as Article 4 of Protocol No. 4 to the Convention (prohibition of mass expulsion) (Case Hirsi Jamaa v. Italy, 2012).

It should also be noted that, during the same years, the Consolidated Act on Immigration and the Condition of Foreign Nationals (Legislative Decree No. 286, 1998) was amended by three decrees: Urgent provisions for the acceleration of international protection proceedings, as well as the fight against illegal immigration (No. 13, 2017), Urgent provisions on international protection and immigration–public security (No. 113, 2018) and Urgent provisions concerning public order and security (No. 53, 2019). The three Decrees were influenced by the strong increase in asylum applications submitted from 2015. For these reasons, they focus on the procedures for examining the applications for international protection, the reception system and the management of arrivals by sea. In particular, with regards to the procedural measures, the Decrees introduce the possibility to video-record the applicant’s interview before the Territorial Commissions for the Recognition of Refugee Status and the elimination of appeal for asylum applications (No. 13/2017), and the elimination of the residence permit for humanitarian reasons (No. 113/2018). These provisions are the most controversial of the Decrees in a number of aspects, because they are in contrast to what is provided in the European Reception Directive and the Return Directive.


We can conclude that both countries have introduced measures that were restrictive and even Germany, while acting according to the “welcome culture”, has taken steps to curb the influx of migrants that could have been welcomed by populist movements. The agreement made by Italy with non-European countries is in line with the indications outlined in the European Agenda on Migration. In fact, since 2015, the external dimension of the EU migration policy has focused on supporting third countries involved in migration routes, with the aim of reducing migration flows and repatriating irregular migrants.


This blogpost has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 822590 (www.demos-h2020.eu). Any dissemination of results here presented reflects only the authors’ view. The Agency is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.


The views expressed above belong to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Centre for Social Sciences.


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