Luis Suàrez’s ‘fake language test’ case highlights Italy’s need to radically update its citizenship system

Basing citizenship on out-of-date, highly restrictive factors is wasting talent and hindering the nation's achievements

Angelo Boccato
Saturday 17 October 2020 14:27
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Barcelona striker Luis Suàrez has been caught up in allegations of cheating in an Italian language exam to secure citizenship, and a 10-million-a-season salary at Juventus. Amid the controversy surrounding the footballer, a wider conversation is going on – the need to update the nation’s old, and extremely prohibitive, citizenship laws.

As per Italian law, only those of ius sanguinis (blood right) are recognised as citizens, unless an individual is raised in Italy as a child, and, directly applies for their Italian citizenship between their 18th and 19th birthdays. It’s an extremely narrow window of time to secure citizenship, especially in a country known for its lengthy administration times and bureaucratic practices.

Italian resident Maxwell Shololo was born in Togo to Ghanaian parents, but has lived in the European nation since he was two, moving in 1992. He knows the complexity of the citizenship issue all too well – Shololo is still in limbo. “I’m glad the Suarez case came out, whether he is guilty of faking a test or not it’s highlighted an issue,” Shololo tells me from Milan. “The majority of the Italian voters do not face issues around citizenship and migration and many are not aware of, or do not have direct experience with, these bureaucratic difficulties.”

When Shololo’s mother applied for Italian citizenship for herself and her children, the process lasted five years. Shololo was 16 when she applied and 21 when he finally got the result of the application. He was denied it on the basis he missed the window to apply. The rest of his family managed to become Italian citizens. As Shololo was a legal adult, before the final decision was made, he was required to start the process again – this time applying as an adult. His years living in the country as a child would not be considered on an adult application – the only way he can now guarantee citizenship is to marry or have proof of continuous residency as an adult for 10 years.

Shololo’s story rings true for more than a million young people in Italy, who are Italian by right, but do not hold an Italian passport and are left perennially forgotten. 

The process of gaining citizenship was further complicated in recent years – the number of years to process a citizenship application increased from two to four. And then, the processing times were changed again from four to three years.

Activist Kwanza Musa Dos Santos, co-founder of the association Questa è Roma (This is Rome), has been vocal for change, “this topic is finding a new space only in the media, but the political discourse remains unchanged. Politicians have merely pretended to introduce changes, by slightly reducing citizenship processing times”.

 As the organisation Italiani senza Cittadinanza (Italians without Citizenship), which advocates for change in the citizenship laws, points out – it is still not good enough.

“The number of claims often doubles. Once a term is reached, the case requires further legal advice and support, and this causes infinitely more delays,” says Fioralba Duma, a spokesperson from Italiani senza Cittadinanza.

Along with high-profile cases like Luis Suàrez’s, other athletes have been drawn into the citizenship debate. The 23-year-old shot put champion Danielle Frédérique Madam lives in Pavia in northern Italy, but her international sporting career is hindered by her citizenship-in-limbo status. She left Cameroon for Italy when she was 7 years old, meaning she can not compete for Cameroon, either. After being vocal about her case, she faced a backlash from citizens who do not believe her to be Italian.

Mayor of Pavia, Mario Fabrizio Fracassi, also a political party member of right-wing League, recently came to her aid by writing a letter to Italian president Sergio Mattarella and asking for a citizenship concession to be made on Madam’s behalf, due to her great contribution to sport.

This was a leap forwards, but, unfortunately, citizenship isn’t of interest to the main political parties. Conservative party Brothers of Italy and the League are openly opposed to citizenship reforms, and the Five Stars Movement has been completely ambivalent towards the cause. Even Democratic prime ministers Matteo Renzi and Paolo Gentiloni have ended up letting down a whole generation in favour of political convenience.

Citizenship legislation needs to change now, before politicians squander the opportunities of another generation and waste more great talents borne from the Italian education system.

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