Who Deserves to Emigrate? Mapping the Loopholes at the Africa-Italy Summit of 2024

On January 28 and 29, the Italian Senate hosted the “Italy-Africa Summit: A Bridge for Common Growth” in Rome, which had been promoted for months by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. In attendance were representatives from 46 African countries, representatives of the EU, the African Union, and the UN, as well as many other international organizations. 

The long-awaited “Mattei Plan” – named after Enrico Mattei, the late president of the state oil company ENI – is an energy plan aimed at establishing a “non-predatory” development partnership between Italy and Africa. The need for such cooperation comes urgently in light of the cut in gas imports from Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. 

Meloni opened the Summit by emphasizing the “shared futures of Europe and Africa”, calling for the possibility of writing a new page in the history of both continents. “Cooperation as equals, far from any predatory temptations, but also from that ‘charity-like’ approach to Africa”. 

The Mattei Plan will set aside EUR 5.5 billion over four years to support “territorial strategies” covering five pillars of intervention: Education and Training, Agriculture, Health, Energy, Water. 

In her opening speech, Meloni also spoke about migration, stressing the need for a common goal to ensure the right not to emigrate: 

Illegal mass immigration will never be stopped, human traffickers will never be defeated, unless the root causes that drive people to leave their homes are addressed. This is precisely what we intend to do, on the one hand by declaring war on the ‘slave traders’ of the third millennium and, on the other, by offering African populations an alternative of opportunities, work, training and legal migration paths”. 

The investments proposed by the Mattei Plan are therefore presented as a strategy to obtain greater control over migratory flows, in addition to new energy supplies, a model that Meloni hopes will serve as “inspiration” for other European countries. 

The avowed notion of the “right not to emigrate” reflects the EU’s limiting and tone-deaf approach to migration. This is a paradigm that has been unable or unwilling to shift away from an emergent and criminalizing view of migration from the Global South, particularly sub-Saharan African displacements, for the past ten years – twenty years, if we consider the “first” migration flows after 2010 following the Arab Springs.

In her powerful poem, “Home”, British-Somali poet Warsan Shire writes: no one leaves home unless 

home is the mouth of a shark 

you only run for the border 

when you see the whole city running as well 

[…] no one puts their children in a boat 

unless the water is safer than the land 

But what if your home is not the mouth of a shark? What if it’s a bustling, gentrifying city that entraps you in precariousness? 

What if your home does not grant you enough money to see the next day? 

And what about those who leave their home for reasons they could not dare to mention to their families? What if their family is the “mouth of a shark”? 

What if your home is passing laws depicting you as evil because of who you are born to love? 

What if you just want to find “something better” elsewhere? 

Who “deserves” to travel, to move, to emigrate? 

Italy is among the European countries that have experienced significant emigration. From its foundation in 1861 to 2021, about 31 million Italian citizens have left the country. Among these, more than 19 million have never returned. While the scale of the flows and the dynamics have changed, emigration increased following the major economic crises of 2008 and 2011. Between 2011 and 2021, data show that “for every young foreigner who arrives in Italy, 7.5 Italians leave”

Like many young people her age, my sister left Italy right after graduating high school. She moved to the Netherlands where she started working straight away, and she has been able to live independently since. 

I also went abroad right after high school but came back to pursue my undergraduate studies. When I completed my bachelor’s degree, I was offered a position in an Italian company where I was being paid almost two times less than what my sister was in the Netherlands. Regardless of the differences in living costs, my salary in Italy was not enough to afford to move out of my parents’ house.

Italians continue to emigrate in search of better financial and living prospects elsewhere. However, there is a key difference between someone migrating from Italy and someone from an African country: their passports. 

Italy ranks second in the Henley Passport Index (2024). It means that Italians have the right to travel to 194 countries “Visa-Free”. Conversely, a Nigerian citizen has the right to travel to only 45 countries. The former Italian colony Somalia ranks last among African countries in the 99th position — followed only by Yemen, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. 

Much of the discussion by European leaders on migration is about controlling and repressing irregular and “illegal(ized)” migration. However, it blindly overlooks the widespread inequality in mobility for people from the Global South when they attempt to “travel legally”. 

Compared to the 1970s and 1980s, it has become more complicated for an African to travel in and out of the continent; African applicants are over twice as likely to be refused a visa than applicants from other parts of the world

Research by the Center for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in 2019 noted that the number of work and study permits granted to African nationals in Europe decreased significantly between 2010 and 2016. Between 2010 and 2011 alone, 60,000 fewer permits were issued to African citizens for educational and occupational reasons, with this downward trend flattening in the following years. 

Taking Italy as an example, the Bossi-Fini Law of 2002 removed the possibility of filing for an entry permit into Italy to seek employment, which was previously regulated by the Turco-Napolitano Law of 1998. The regulation for non-seasonal and self-employed work that sets a yearly quota for third-country nationals (decreto flussi) has often proved ineffective due to delays in the publication of quotas and is failing to meet the demands of employers. CEPS’ research (2019) observed that, in 2016, only 18,000 of the 30,000 planned permits were issued, despite 44,000 requests from employers. 

In order to obtain entry for work in Italy, you should ideally already have, prior to your arrival, a work contract and an institution willing to sponsor your visa/permit — a scenario difficult to conceive even for the most qualified workers. 

Just as young Italians aspire to migrate elsewhere because their country fails to meet their needs, so do Nigerians, Gambians, Congolese, Somalis. 

Yet, for people who are not wealthy enough to afford to reapply for a visa after each refusal, or who are unable to qualify for study programs overseas, the only option is often to go via sea and risk their lives. 

The EU Migration Framework System reinforces conditions for “illegalized” migration 

In a system that does not question the existing barriers and inequalities to mobility, EU countries have instead adopted increasingly restrictive policies of deterrence and exclusion in migration.

The new EU Pact on Migration and Asylum, published in December 2023, is a tragic reflection of this system. In addition to not overcoming the Dublin Treaty, which binds refugees to identify themselves and remain in the first EU country they set foot in, it merely reinforces a “wall” approach. 

The pact shifts the screening and processing onto third countries such as Libya, Tunisia, and Turkey, where it will be established who is eligible for asylum without allowing a migrant’s entry into EU territory. Migrants will be hosted in detention centers while waiting for their applications to be reviewed. 

It should be noted that asylum seekers have reported being subjected to extreme xenophobic harassment, torture, and sexual abuse at the hands of border officers in these countries. Furthermore, the EU Migration Pact will not apply to Ukrainian asylum seekers, causing obvious discrimination among asylum seekers. 

According to Human Rights Watch associate director Judith Sunderland, the pact does not relieve the pressure on countries such as Greece, Italy, Malta and Cyprus, but incentivizes them to ignore boats in distress at sea and engage in unlawful refoulement. 

The same voices who spoke at the Italy-Africa Summit about “not being able to think about a future without Africa” continue to engage in xenophobic and exclusivist political discourses, and have frequently promoted damaging slogans against African migrants and African descendants living in their countries. 

And African country representatives remain complicit, possibly more intent on actioning the financial plan than on ensuring the mobility and security of their citizens. 

Since the beginning of 2024, four migrants per day have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea trying to reach Italy, says UNHCR representative for Italy, Chiara Cardoletti.

As Somali-Italian writer Igiaba Scego wrote in an article for Italian magazine Internazionale a few years ago, we cannot discuss regular migration until we begin opening airports and “legalizing travel”. African migrants are entitled to easier access to mobility, just like Italians and Europeans are. 

Many of these migrants who arrive by sea or land spend a lot of money and are at the mercy of abusive smugglers; if there weren’t such major discrepancies between passports, they could move more easily. 

“People would go abroad for study, work, further specializations, seasonal work, or to gain experience for a few years. Asylum seekers would apply for international protection, but others could go to work or study. Travel would become circular again” (Igiaba Scego, 2019, March 12, Internazionale). 

If we really want to create a bridge between Europe and Africa, away from predatory and charitable agendas, we must start at the root, recognizing the problems of a system that immobilizes people who simply want to move.

Investing in development should not be presented as a “trade-off” for repressing a structural phenomenon in which humans have been participating since the beginning of time, but rather as an opportunity to contribute and collaborate—truly—together. 


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Writer: Giselle Musabimana
Editors: Chimee Adioha, Amaka Obioji
Featured Image: Mail & Guardian

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