Moving Cities
About the city


The open harbour city challenging European migration politics

Key Takeaways

  • 1

    Palermo shows how influential cities can be where the political will exists: The city has repeatedly criticised both EU and national approaches to migration, capitalising on all the political weight that a city administration has as its disposal.

  • 2

    Palermo demonstrates the importance of having multiple actors engaged in the dialogue about migrant-oriented solidarity, from grassroots initiatives to city administration. Constructive criticism, and even confrontation, strengthens both local practices and those across various locations.

What is unique about the city?

Overcoming the European border regime: Palermo is committed to fighting for a radical change in EU and national border policies, with a particular focus on maritime migration and search and rescue (SAR) activities in the Mediterranean Sea.

What are the key factors?

Grassroots activism meets a gutsy mayor: Refugee-oriented solidarity in Palermo is the result of a mix of grassroots activism, civil society and institutions. The city’s far-reaching reputation is closely bound up with the former Mayor Leoluca’s agenda and political capital. By repeatedly declaring the city’s openness – practically branding it as a “migration friendly” city – the mayor has succeeded in casting the city in a progressive light. This new image has met with great interest from abroad, playing as it does on the contrast between its historical reputation as a mafia city and its present-day reputation as a city of rights and solidarity. Orlando (1985 - 2000, 2012 - 2022) did not run again in the mayoral election in June 2022 and retired. The mayor's post has since been taken over by the controversial Roberto Lagalla (Unione di Centro, Christian Democratic Party) in a right-wing coalition that has always sharply criticised Orlando's progressive migration policy.

What are the most outstanding results so far?

A European forerunner of alternative policies: Building on the city administration’s commitment and the credibility of its grassroots initiatives, Palermo has become increasingly visible across Europe and has set an example for the possibilities of a new migration and border politics at the EU level. The city of Palermo has successfully shaped an EU-wide counternarrative to, and political discussion of, both EU and national migration policies. The Charter of Palermo and the ‘International Alliance of Safe Harbours’ are two of the most significant initiatives in this regard. Unfortunately, the change of municipal government from Orlando to Lagalla in June 2022 resulted in the city disengaging from the most progressive networks on migration, such as the International Alliance of Safe Harbours.

Political activities and advocacy beyond the city level

Advocacy and active resistance are not mere rhetoric in Palermo. They have brought about important changes in the political positioning of municipalities and further promoted networking and cooperation across Europe. The “Palermo Charter Platform Process”, and its most recent initiative “From the Sea to the City”, are particularly important, insofar as they capitalise on this advocacy work, both in practical and symbolic terms. The cooperation with other cities has also been a key component in its lobbying efforts, and will continue to be important in the future for the network of solidarity cities opposing exclusionary EU migration policies.

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The city report contains more information about the city’s migration and inclusion policies and selected local approaches. Report from 2021, updated in 2023.

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Political context of Italy

Migration policy in Italy

Immigration is a relatively recent phenomenon in Italy, as is the development of migration and asylum policies. Alongside EU migration policies, reception is often secondary to border control and the “fight against irregular migration”.

The so-called “flow decree" defines the maximum number of foreigners who can be admitted on to Italian territory for employment purposes. However, regular migration channels have closed, and "irregular" migration has been increasingly criminalised in recent decades.

Until the introduction of the “hotspot approach” in 2015, asylum policies in Italy had increasingly aligned with EU policies. A new 2020 law has, at least in theory, reformed the reception system back to a single system for both asylum seekers and those granted international and special protection. Nevertheless, the system is still primarily addressed at beneficiaries of international protection and unaccompanied minors. Also, municipalities do not have enough space to meet the reception needs of all those entitled to it. To this end, local authorities can use financial resources made available by the Interior Ministry through the ‘national fund for asylum policies and services’.

Historical background

Having been predominantly a country of emigration until the 1980s, Italy has gradually transformed itself into a country of immigration. In the absence of any coherent regulatory framework, the situation was managed for years with ad hoc measures. In 1982 a ban on entry for employment purposes was introduced, leading to a trend of “irregular” entries for work, which was compensated by periodic regularisation every four years or so.

In 1986, the Foschi Law established full equal rights for foreign workers, but without simplifying conditions of entry. In 1990, the Martelli Law extended the asylum law and created legal entry channels that were strictly regulated in terms of numbers. At the same time, it introduced measures to control entry and deport irregular migrants. The 1998 Turco-Napolitano Law created a residence card to protect long-term residents, but also privileged quotas of labour migrants from countries that collaborate on repatriation. Temporary detention and assistance centres (CPTs) were then created to detain and identify undocumented migrants.

In 2002, the Bossi-Fini Law introduced the so-called “flow policy”, with stringent admission requirements. It shortened the duration of residence permits, instituted fingerprinting for all foreigners and increased the length of stay in CPTs from 30 to 60 days. At the same time, 650,000 permits were regularised, while the 2007 EU expansion facilitated the right to remain in Italy for over one million foreigners from the new EU member states.

In 2008-2009 the rules were tightened. Illegal immigration was officially recognised as a crime and the requirements for integration became stricter.

In 2017, the government used the Minniti-Orlando Law to expand the capacity of immigration detention centres in order to increase the rate of deportations. The same government also signed a new memorandum of understanding on cooperation with Libya to curb the flow of migrants to Europe.

Key developments of recent years

With the introduction of the “hotspot approach” in 2015, originally intended to promote voluntary redistribution between EU countries, Italy’s “selection” system upon arrival was reconfigured. Selections were now made on the basis of country of origin, and with the marked distinction between “potential asylum seekers” and unwanted “economic migrants”.

The Salvini Decrees on immigration and security closed ports to NGOs that carried out sea rescue missions, and allocated funds for undercover police operations to combat the facilitation of illegal immigration. Humanitarian protection was eliminated, affecting the majority of beneficiaries of international protection. A further consequence was that asylum seekers were then no longer able to register, drastically affecting both their ability to access to public services and their residency requirements. A 2020 Constitutional Court ruling later abolished this measure.

With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, “quarantine ships” were created to isolate migrants before their entry into Italy. This measure inevitably evoked memories of the “floating hotspots” envisaged in 2016 by the then Interior Minister Alfano. A temporary decree on 19th May 2020 used emergency measures to house asylum seekers in accommodation centres normally reserved for those with subsidiary protection status and unaccompanied minors.

Progressive campaigns and their achievements

The Federation of Evangelical Churches and the Mediterranean Hope project have been the concept of “humanitarian corridors”, designed to serve vulnerable population groups.

2015 also saw the signing of the Charter of Palermo, which aims at “addressing the regulation of migratory flows in a completely new way, for example by proposing the abolition of residence permits, in favour of adopting a radical understanding of citizenship adoption as a tool for inclusion and participation in public life.” The Palermo process underpins the Palermo Charter Process Platform Process, which brings together actors and activists involved in sea rescue from all over Europe.