Back in 1991, after the fall of communism in Albania and the opening of the borders of a state that had long been virtually closed to the outside world, thousands of Albanians reached the southern Italian coast of Bari, in Puglia. Many were on board the big ship named Vlora, whose image has become a symbolic image of that time, some were on ships with far more limited capacity.
A deep socio-economic crisis was sweeping across the country, and many Albanians had begun to look at the land just across the sea with a new urge to explore. Italy, whose silhouette could be seen from right across the Adriatic, would no longer be so close and yet so far away.
Meanwhile, TV and radio stations were virtually unanimous in portraying the peninsula’s appealing profile: A place within easy reach in which to pursue freedoms and better lives.
While the Vlora episode is set in stone in collective memory, the first Balkan forays in the peninsula date back as far as the 15th century, with communities from Albania, Greece, Kosovo and Macedonia settling in the deep south (especially in Calabria, Puglia, Basilicata and Sicily), as a result of the Ottoman Empire’s invasion of the region.
Their descendants are still referred to as “Arbëreshë.” Many prominent figures are remembered for their remote Arbëreshë descent: Francesco Crispi, one of Italy’s earliest prime ministers, and Antonio Gramsci, the acclaimed writer and social theorist.
The mass exodus of 1991 marked nonetheless a new beginning for Italy’s multicultural landscape. A few decades later, almost half a million Albanians regularly reside in Italy, many of whom claim to feel 100 percent Italian and often know little of the country that their parents are originally from.
But the process of applying for citizenship is a long and tiresome one and often involves enduring many frustrations along the way.
One person who knows this all too well is Ermir Lushnjari. In the wake of the instability that followed the collapse of the ponzi schemes in Albania in the late ’90s, in 1999, at the age of 15, Lushnjari migrated to Italy illegally by boat, like tens of thousands are doing so today.
“The bureaucratic wait for getting a valid [travel] permit was too long to navigate under those circumstance,” he says. “I had no other choice.”
His goal was to reach his parents in the north of Italy as soon as could. Upon arrival, he settled in Verbania — a northern municipality not far from Switzerland — where he completed his education in law, and set about attempting to regularize his residence status.
As a trainee lawyer he was quick to notice the intricacies of bureaucracy when it comes to pursuing Italian documentation, including countless trips back and forth to see a lawyer and the tortuous experience of collecting all the supporting documentation and filling in the various forms. Meanwhile, some of the required forms were unclear and difficult to navigate, especially for applicants who are less proficient in Italian or less familiar with the country’s legal landscape.
“Waiting up to four years to see a legitimate inquiry welcomed is hard to accept,” he says.
Having secured his own Italian citizenship in 2011, and sharing the discontent of fellow foreigners, Lushnjari decided to put his legal background to good use to try to assist those going through the personal challenge of coping with the bureaucratic process.
After noticing that most applicants were unaware of their own submission status, he envisioned a platform in which each user could gain a well-informed perspective on the legal cogs. His solution was to develop a tool as simple as a mobile app.
“I named it Caj Mali [Mountain Tea] to evoke a familiar imagery tied to the rituals of drinking tea,” he says. “I thought this would speak to a shared sense of belonging.”
It is no coincidence that the app’s customized logo is made up of twelve flower-shaped little icons in place of the twelve stars on the EU flag.
Today, Caj Mali is aimed at ordinary people who share the pain that comes with the citizenship quest in Italy. Lushnjari defines it as a free legal service that breaks down the procedure for worried expats who do not have command of the language and who find it difficult to navigate application forms on official websites and the legal minefield as a whole.
It took Lushnjari 10 months to get to where he is today. The project took off in February 2018 and has since garnered the attention of over 3,000 users — with over 300 of them from Kosovo, Albania and other parts of the Balkans — primarily relying on word of mouth.
So far, people from 57 states, including Australia, Brazil, Argentina, Ukraine and Sri Lanka, have applied for their Italian citizenship through the app.
On the app, in addition to submitting their citizenship applications, users can find accurate details about the process that they would ordinarily find hard to access. The platform is structured in a way that sheds further light on the acquisition and granting of citizenship to foreign nationals. One section provides an updated picture of the overall experience from a juridical perspective — what the steps look like and what actions must be taken.
Another contains the documents ready to be filled out and sent to the institutions. It takes a click to begin the procedure, and users can then check the real-time status of an application once the procedure is underway.
This means that users can skip the back and forth trips to see a lawyer, while being easily able to track the status of their online submission with no further paperwork needed.
To help with the key challenge of applicants navigating the chaotic legal landscape for those without a solid grasp of Italian, Lushnjari has included a simplified version of judiciary jargon — something he says administrative institutions mostly lack.
As he developed the app, he grew more and more confident that using his training and expertise to put all the relevant information and forms together in one place would help candidates to navigate the lengthy process, and that tapping into technology to put it all into the palm of their hands would open the whole process up.
Caught up in a trap
According to recent statistics, around 135,000 people obtained Italian citizenship in 2017, including over 27,000 ethnic Albanians. Yet the pathway to gaining Italian citizenship remains anything but clear-cut, and if anything has become harder in recent years.
Lushnjari’s pursuit very much fits into the larger conversation around identity politics that’s currently underway in Italy.
Matteo Salvini, the far-right deputy prime minister and minister of the interior, rose to power in 2018 on the promise of restoring the country’s national security and putting “Italians first.”
But as the the coalition government, made up of Salvini’s Northern League and the populist Five Star Movement, hardens its tones over the migration debate, it also threatens to contravene inherently democratic principles. Salvini’s policies have contributed to a significant decrease in the number of new arrivals to Italy in 2018, which went down from over 119,000 in 2017 to just about 23,000 in 2018.
The newly established political leadership has brought back to the table an exclusionary in-group rhetoric that aligns well with nationalistic sentiments widespread across Europe; in November 2018 the government issued the Immigrazione e Sicurezza (Immigration Security) decree, which aims to prevent sans papier (undocumented) immigrants from being granted citizenship.
The new rules, among other things, clamp down on the asylum system, removing short-term “humanitarian protection” status, reducing the role of asylum seeker reception structures, denying residency rights to asylum seekers and allowing the withdrawal of citizenship if someone is linked with terrorist activities.
The regulation has also further stretched waiting times for those seeking citizenship, significantly extending the application processes and causing costs to soar.