Omar Neffati grew up in the hilltop village of Sutri, 50km from Rome, attending a school where he was no different from his classmates.
“I always felt Italian. The teachers treated me like all the other children. I spoke with the local accent of my area instead of proper Italian. I grew up just like the other kids,” Neffati explained over a WhatsApp call.
Nevertheless, at the age of 26 Neffati still does not have Italian citizenship, thwarted by laws that as in Ireland strongly link nationality to descent, and the bureaucratic difficulty of proving eligibility. Like in Ireland’s case, it is possible for someone who has never visited Italy to claim citizenship through a grandparent, while many people born and bred in in the country have a more difficult route.
A member of campaign group Italians Without Citizenship, Neffati is of a generation of “new Italians” who are pushing for reform to the citizenship laws that exclude them.
Their proposal is to introduce a new principle into Italian law that would give a right to citizenship based on school attendance. It would apply to children who were born in Italy or moved there before the age of 12, and have completed more than five years of school.
The rationale for linking citizenship to school is that education is a naturalisation process in itself. Such children typically do not differentiate themselves from their friends and it can be a surprise to them to discover they aren’t citizens.
“Look, at this very moment I’m eating a supplì,” Neffati quipped, referring to a local snack. “There’s nothing more Roman than that. I don’t have integration issues – on the contrary.”
The number of children affected is high: a 2019 report found 842,000 students in Italian public schools did not have citizenship. In Ireland, the 2016 census counted 65,860 non-Irish nationals in the country aged 14 or younger.
School-based citizenship has been given the name “jus culturae”, or “cultural right” in Italy. It’s a new addition to the two traditional legal bases for citizenship: jus soli and jus sanguinis.
Jus soli or “right of soil” is birthright citizenship, a norm often seen in the Americas, whereby children born in a country have a claim to that nationality irrespective of the origin of their parents.
In Europe, jus sanguinis is more common. “Right of blood” means citizenship is determined by descent: the nationality of your parents or grandparents.
Ireland used to have both. But voters chose to remove jus soli in a 2004 referendum. Babies born on the island have automatic citizenship only if one of their parents is an Irish citizen, or is entitled to be so, under the 27th amendment of the Constitution. Claiming citizenship through naturalisation requires residency of at least five years, and an application process that costs €1,125 for adults and €375 for children.
Like Italy, Ireland is gearing up for a debate on the issue. Minister for Justice Helen McEntee has proposed reducing the required residency to three years for children.
The reform is inspired by the case of Eric Xue, a nine-year-old from Bray who had never been outside Ireland when his family was threatened with deportation in 2018, triggering a campaign by his classmates to allow him to stay.
“We have seen that the children who have been born in Ireland, have grown up here and have known no other home but here, are effectively stateless if they do not have Irish citizenship,” Labour Senator Ivana Bacik, who has worked on the proposal, told the Seanad in December. “They are being threatened with deportation along with their families.”
In Italy, the proposal for jus culturae has been stalled for several years, but is a perennial political issue. The leader of the centre-left Democratic Party Enrico Letta has proposed introducing it under the term of the current government. But it is fiercely opposed by the right, and may be overshadowed by the pandemic and its economic fallout.
It wouldn’t be entirely new – Greece is another European country that links school attendance with citizenship. But whether in Italy or Ireland, it would serve as a redress to strongly descent-based laws that exclude people who know no other home.
“Me and many others – we’re already Italian,” Neffati said. “Most people who know me are shocked when they find out I don’t have citizenship yet.”