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  • Writer's pictureLeigh Miller

Human Rights - An Italian Perspective

"Social Studies" Columnist

Ciao a tutti! Welcome to the society and travel section, called Social Studies! We’ll be covering all things travel and society in our little corner of Dalla Bocca Del Lupo. Like, literally, everything. The good, the bad, and the unsalted mensa vegetables. Rome, and Italy in general, is breathtaking and vibrant. But we aren’t a travel brochure, so just as we want to share fun social events, we want to share the complex and multidimensional stories as well.

I’m Leigh, and I will be covering this section in the fall semester. True to my nature, I decided to dive head first into the complicated with a look at human rights, migrants, and refugees. If you are American, you’ve probably been bombarded with different images, stories, and viewpoints of this issue, especially during the last five years. If you are European, you’ve also been exposed, particularly since 2015 when humanitarian crises in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa reached a tipping point and an estimated 1.3 million people came to Europe to request asylum. I happened to be living in Italy that year, and saw much of it in the news and in local immigration offices while filling out my own residency paperwork.

Professor Luca Badetti recently hosted guest lecturer William Mahoney here at JFRC. William Mahoney is a Chicago attorney who is on the International Policy Advisory Board of Human Rights Watch. Mahoney also happens to be a JFRC alumni. His lecture was illuminating and informative and left me wanting to know more.

What exactly is "Human Rights," as defined by international law? The domain of Human Rights is defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as set forth by the United Nations in Paris in 1948. The atrocities of World War II, and the era preceding it, illuminated the need for a common standard of basic rights across the globe. These rights ('Articles') have been translated into over 500 languages, and are defined as inalienable rights that supersede any national law.

Too often, however, these inalienable human rights are ignored. That’s where organizations like the Human Rights Watch (HRW) step in. HRW is made up of 450 people from over 70 countries, including lawyers, journalists, students, and others that investigate and expose human rights abuses and work towards change while advocating for the worlds’ most vulnerable populations. The HRW does not accept money from any government, to maintain its independence. All donations are reviewed by the organization. If you would like to get involved with HRW, or with a related local agency, see the information at the end of the article.

How does modern day Italy fit in? Rewind a moment to my comments on 2015, when an estimated 1.3 million people came to Europe to request asylum due to unlivable conditions in their own country due to civil war, persecution, and genocide. Italy’s geographical position, a peninsula in Southern Europe, provides access into the European Union for those seeking asylum. Italy received over 115,000 refugees in 2015, which was the height of the crisis in Europe.

A refugee is a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. Now, we seeing the emergence of a new category of refugee and migrant - climate refugees. Their countries have become unlivable because of climate change. It’s been recognized as a problem, but no formal international law has been adopted for their protection. A migrant has a different definition or legal status, not under protection of asylum - a migrant is a person who moves from one place to another in order to find better living conditions. A migrant also has all the rights afforded under the international human rights law, but does not qualify necessarily for acceptance and refugee status by the country they seek to live in.

Italy had its share of economic woes after the 2008 global economic crash, and the flux of refugees and migrants was a daunting prospect, especially given the inconsistency in EU law in regards to accepting refugees and migrants. With most of the refugees landing in Italy and Greece, the economic responsibility was put on the shoulders of two countries already struggling. Germany took in a large number of refugees, over 500,000 in a country of only 83.2 million (or just over one-fifth of the U.S. population).

Many of the other countries shut their doors completely, leaving the financial burden in the hands of a few. Economic troubles, cultural differences, and terrorist attacks in Europe fostered an environment that is not hospitable to those seeking asylum. In many ways, this mirrors the issues we see in the U.S. as well, where opinions and ideology vary widely and can produce tension. In 2018, a more conservative Italian government rolled back protections for migrants and refugees. Thankfully in 2020, some were given back. See more here.

Refugees and migrants can get some basic services at refugee centers, but only get between 150-200 euro a month in government assistance - which is why private not-for-profit organizations are so important.

This article barely scratches the surface of a complex issue. This is an ever evolving issue in Italy, Europe and the U.S. If you are already volunteering, studying policy, or have a fresh introspective, I’d love to hear about it.

I leave you with two Ted Talks about the refugee crisis -

If you’d like to get involved here are some great starting points:

Professor Luca Badetti, JFRC

Human Rights Watch -

Jesuit Refugee Center, Rome -

Contact Leigh:

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