Migrants from North Africa, fleeing the unrest in Tunisia, arrive in southern Italy on March 7, 2011.

© 2011 Reuters

Italy sent an important message yesterday  - undocumented migrants aren’t criminals.

The lower house of Italy’s parliament agreed with the Senate to abolish the crime of entering or staying in the country without a permit.  The law dated back to 2009, when the government at the time amended the immigration code to make irregular entry and stay a crime punishable by a fine of up to €10,000 (US$13,772). The point was never to collect this kind of money from immigrants struggling to feed themselves, but rather to stigmatize irregular migrants by branding them as criminals.

The law had another intent – to get undocumented migrants out of the country. Roberto Maroni, then interior minister, openly stated at the time that the point was to circumvent the EU Returns Directive, which emphasizes that departure of undocumented migrants should be voluntary rather than coerced as a general rule - but does not apply to criminal expulsions. The Court of Justice of the European Union closed that loophole in 2011 with two different rulings involving Italy and France. Now member states are not allowed to exclude from the directive irregular immigrants who are guilty only of entering without proper documents.

Civil society groups, including Human Rights Watch, criticized the measure from its inception.  News of criminal charges being filed against survivors of the horrific October 3rd shipwreck off Lampedusa—in which 366 people died— prompted widespread outrage in Italy.

The abrogation of the measure was included in a broad package of reforms to the criminal justice system designed to relieve the overburdened court system and severe overcrowding (and poor conditions) in Italy’s prisons.

The crime of irregular entry and stay was largely symbolic; in practice most undocumented migrants are given administrative, not criminal, expulsion orders. And undocumented migrants in Italy will still face criminal sanction if they return to Italy following an expulsion. Still, yesterday’s vote helps to correct the dangerous message that undocumented migrants are criminal.