The legal barriers affecting undocumented women in Italy

Miriam(1) is a young migrant woman who turned to a women’s anti-violence centre in Northern Italy to escape the violence perpetrated by her husband. Miriam held a residence permit for family reunification and had entered the shelter three months before her permit was due to expire. Miriam had two possibilities to remain in Italy. The first was to find a permanent job before her permit expired and show the authorities that she would earn enough money to maintain herself and her daughter. The second was to hope that the juvenile court would determine that she could obtain the custody of her child, who was born in Italy, and then extend her permit for family reasons.

The woman attempted to find a job but was facing many difficulties. She did not speak Italian due to the isolation imposed by her husband while living together in Italy and she was systematically refused work by local employers on what she believed were racial grounds. Given the bureaucratic nature of court procedures and the time required to finalize judicial orders, waiting for the court’s decision was not an option for her. Furthermore, it was not certain that the court would take into account the fact that domestic violence had occurred, nor was it certain that she would obtain custody of the child and the related permit to remain in Italy. The woman was unable to secure a job and could not wait for the tribunal decision. She had no choice but to return to her violent husband.(2)

In this story, legal restrictions represent the most difficult challenge for the woman to overcome a situation experienced by many migrant women who seek help in anti-violence shelters in Italy. Italian immigration law(3) foresees a residence permit for family reasons to be directly connected to the permit of the spouse. This makes it almost impossible for female victims of domestic violence to pursue divorce proceedings, unless they find work beforehand and are able to convert the family permit into a working permit. In reality, obtaining the working permit is near impossible, because most migrant women who are victims of violence cannot find stable employment or do not earn enough money to support themselves and their children. Given the widespread unemployment in Italy and the racism of prospective employers, these women are left with nowhere to turn to. Alternative options include marriage to an EU citizen or someone who holds a long-term residence permit, or obtaining a one-year permit for humanitarian reasons, that include domestic violence and human trafficking. In order to apply for the one-year permit, the woman must first report her situation to the police, who are then required to verify whether the woman remains in danger. If the woman does manage to obtain the permit, her legal situation continues to be unstable. In order to fulfil the requirements of the long-term residence permit, which is obtainable only after five years of continuous residence, she must then prove that she has ongoing work, a stable income, adequate accommodation, and has passed an Italian language exam.

In Italy, migrant women suffering domestic violence are confronted with myriad legal barriers. They are left in a legal limbo, which often turns into paralyzing uncertainty. Many then come to view the violence of their husbands as the lesser evil. Sariah, a woman who entered a women’s shelter with her two children, and who, like Miriam, entered Italy through family reunification, described her situation as ‘torture’. She explained that the first time she had escaped from her husband, she turned to the police requesting a renewal of her residence permit. The police officers told her it would be quite impossible for her to renew the permit, because she did not work, and she did not have a place to live. Sariah’s only option was to return to her husband. She eventually obtained her residence permit and today she lives alone with her two children, free from her husband’s violence. However, the uncertainty of her legal status has become a never-ending story, and it has been impossible for her to restart a new life without the certainty of permanent residence.

When a woman escapes domestic violence in Italy, her socio-economic status declines immediately. This situation is exacerbated by the economic situation in Italy where unemployment is high and access to jobs(4) is limited. Many women, especially migrant(5) women, lose their work when they have children. They are generally employed as care assistants, domestic workers or in the textile industry. This work is often undeclared and places women at constant risk of exploitation, because they have no access to labour rights or health protection. These factors prevent women from applying for working permits, forcing them to be economically and legally dependent on their husbands and thus, exposing the indissoluble tie between economic and legal barriers that will impact them when they attempt to escape (from) domestic violence.

In 2017, a new Italian law is being introduced(6) to control the diffusion of migrant detention centres, a situation that will worsen the possibility for asylum seekers to appeal against the denial of their refugee status. Many Italian organizations that support migrant women have attempted to highlight the institutional racism of current migration laws and procedures, all of which increase the vulnerability of migrant women and asylum seekers to different forms of violence. These centres also report cases of undocumented women who have been brought to detention centres after reporting to the police that they had experienced violence from their partners, employers, or exploiters. Human Rights Watch has also denounced the condition of female asylum seekers in reception centres in Italy, highlighting a lack of financial and human resources and specialised personnel capable of guaranteeing adequate assistance to these women, particularly those who were victims of sexual violence along the migration route.(7)

In conclusion, Italian immigration laws are not markedly different from other Schengen countries. However, the problems are worse in Italy due to the impact of an ongoing economic crisis, high unemployment rates, the highest in Europe, a labour market that exploits workers, and migrant reception policies that fail to address the needs of the most vulnerable persons. Italian migration laws are in breach of the Istanbul Convention(8), forcing many undocumented migrant women to remain silent about the violence they have suffered, and instead creating further obstacles when they attempt to escape from violence.

This article was written by Marina Della Rocca.

She is an anthropologist and Ph.D. student at the Faculty of Education of the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano (Italy). She is researching structural violence affecting migrant women, who suffered domestic violence in South Tyrol (Italy). Marina is an active member and former operator of the women’s shelter of Bozen-Bolzano.

This article appeared in the 2017 edition of Fempower. Find the archive of all Fempower magazines here.
Sources & Notations

1) The women’s names reported in this article are fictitious.

2) This story, like the other experiences cited in the article, are extracted from my Ph.D. thesis at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, which explored the reproduction of structural barriers in supportive practices toward migrant women suffering domestic violence, and was carried out from 2014 to 2017.

3) Bossi-Fini Bill, July 30th 2002. Retrieved from on 7/13/2017.

4) Bettio, F., & Ticci, E. (2017). Violence Against Women and Economic Independence. Retrieved from on 11.07.2017.

5) Istat (Italian Institute of Statistic)(2015). Come cambia la vita delle donne. 2004-2014. Retrieved from on 11.07.2017.

6) Minniti-Orlando Bill, February, 17 2017. Retrieved from on 7/27/2017.
Retrieved from on 7/27/2017.

7) Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence


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