Italy’s migration contradiction

Ferruccio Pastore
19 February 2004

Italy (map: Perry Castaneda Library)

The Italian peninsula, sretched out like a long pier jutting into the middle of the Mediterranean, has been a ‘border region’ for centuries. Once it had lost its political centrality on the global scene with the decline and fall of the Roman empire, Italy long marked a civilisational frontline between Christianity and Islam. Later it became sidelined as a battleground between European powers, which helps to explain why it gained national independence so late in the day. In the last century, it constituted a crucial segment in the global geopolitical divide between east and west, host to the largest Communist Party, as well as to one of the highest concentrations of United States troops in western Europe.

Since 1989, all this has changed. Italy is now in the throes of experiencing a new “border identity” crisis. At the crossroads between North Africa, the Balkans and continental Europe, we now know what it means to live on a faultline: one of the most unstable economic, political and demographic fault-lines in the world. During the 1990s, people fleeing war-torn Yugoslavia, breaking out of crumbling Albania or escaping from some stagnant Maghreb regime were the tangible, successive signs of a new phase in the history of Italy as border country.

Pull factors

Pressure from the east and south is certainly not the only factor in Italy’s rapid and dramatic transition from the largest sending country in contemporary history to what is today the main attractive for irregular labour immigration in Europe (spectacularly highlighted, out of the blue, by the 700,000 immigrants who were given legal recognition at the end of 2003: a world record, second only to the US amnesty in 1986). This extraordinary reversal cannot be understood without considering the powerful pull-factors built into today’s Italian economic and social model.

700,000 immigrants were given legal recognition in Italy at the end of 2003: a world record, second only to the US amnesty in 1986

During the 1960s, Italy experienced a rapid transformation from a (still largely) rural and traditional society, to an industrial and predominantly urban one. The transformation was quick in economic structures and behaviour patterns, but probably even quicker in terms of identity and self-perception. During the early 1970s, when older immigration countries in western Europe barred their front doors, young Italians of working age showed themselves increasingly reluctant to perform a series of core tasks once performed by their parents. It began with the opening up of minor niches in local labour markets (leading to Cape Verde domestic workers in Rome or Tunisian fishermen in Sicily) but it soon expanded to growing segments across all economic sectors (cattle-breeding, fruit-picking, metal and mechanical industry, catering).

This penetration of foreign labour was facilitated by some emerging features of the Italian economy. The growing proportion of small and medium enterprises in the 1980s, and the simultaneous expansion of the hidden economy, acted as powerful facilitating factors. Meanwhile, the basic character of the nation’s social model and welfare system helped reinforce this immigration trend. Even at the height of its modernisation, family networks retained a strong role in the provision of basic care services within Italian society. Public welfare evolved in the same way, with scant provision to cover the needs of children and elderly people. But with the loosening of family ties, the shrinking of families and the increase in female participation to the labour force, that system proved less and less sustainable. Some compensatory support was badly needed: Somali, Philippine, Romanian and Ukrainian housekeepers, baby-sitters and care-workers thus became indispensable to millions of Italian families.

Immigration schizophrenia

So far, Italy’s tumultuous migratory transition has been driven by economic and demographic factors, while politics and culture, wrong-footed, strove in vain to catch up. In little more than twenty years (1982 to 2004), no fewer than six successive regularisation schemes have been adopted and implemented for irregular migrants, whether they were clandestine entrants or people exceeding their visa entitlements. Altogether, over 1.5 million foreigners have been coaxed out of the shadow economy and granted access to those welfare services available to direct tax-payers (beyond urgent medical care and schooling for children, which are open to undocumented migrants as well).

If one applies to this 1.5 million legalised immigrants a simple multiplier (however conservative) to estimate the impact of family regroupment (the process of newly ‘regularised’ migrants bringing their families to join then), it is impossible not to conclude that irregular migration has been by far the most important driving force in this spectacular turn-around in migration figures. The argument that the vast majority of the current 2.5 million estimated foreigners (i.e. non-EU citizens) regularly residing in the country came independent of any kind of policy planning, through a nevertheless very efficient circuit – irregular migration à regularisation à family regroupment – can hardly be a matter for empirical dispute.

This peculiar admission graph is typical of, but certainly not exclusive to, Italy: other southern European countries share identical trends, and some of the most affluent new member states in the European Union could soon experience similar dynamics. Awareness of this development is essential to any understanding of the basic features of the present Italian immigrant population, not selected by top-down government choice, but rather through spontaneous market mechanisms – both the official labour market and the market for human trafficking. Needless to say, understanding our “Mediterranean” admission model is also crucial if you wish to grasp some of the specificities in the social and cultural attitudes of indigenous Italians towards immigration.

Whereas a minority of Italian natives want to see immigration policy framed through ideological lenses the attitude of the vast and silent majority is better described by a psychiatric analogy: schizophrenia

Whereas a minority of Italian natives want to see immigration policy framed through ideological lenses (of either a xenophobic or a xenophile nature), the attitude of the vast and silent majority is better described by a psychiatric analogy: schizophrenia. On the one hand, immigrant labour is utilised daily, usually to everyone’s advantage and satisfaction. On the other hand, any visible sign of an immigrant presence, beyond the sheer and silent impact of their work, is perceived as a disturbing interference in our domestic affairs: whether it be the claim for decent housing or for a prayer hall, or just the habit of cooking a strong-smelling Sunday meal in a crowded apartment building.

This schizoid reaction to immigration is hardly new. Nor is it a solely Italian response. Aristide Zolberg’s effective little formula, “wanted but not welcome”, is often cited; as is also the withering aphorism by the Swiss writer Max Frisch: “We wanted arms, but people have come.” What is perhaps specific to the Italian case is the intensity of such a syndrome, due to an admissions policy which so visibly failed to address migration, or to give it the appearance of a “normal” phenomenon.

Gathering the fragments of a policy strategy

During most of the 1990s, politics was slow to respond to this powerful combination of endogenous and exogenous migration factors. In spite of some good-looking (but largely ineffective) pieces of legislation, concrete policy responses were mere reactions to contingencies and emergencies, supported by insufficient funding and an inadequate administrative culture.

It was only at the very end of the twentieth century that some elements of a national strategy to manage migration started to crystallise. From 1996 to 2001, a succession of centre-left governments made a serious and consistent attempt – despite a certain amount of wavering and retreat – to regain some sort of strategic control over immigration and incorporation trends.

The main planks of this policy were as follows:

  1. A substantial upgrading of border control and law enforcement capacities against irregular migration and human smuggling. Temporary detention centres for undocumented migrants awaiting expulsion were the single most important and controversial innovation.

  2. Admission mechanisms were reformed by making them more flexible and better adapted to the economic demand for foreign labour issuing from enterprises and families. A national bureaucratic mechanism for the yearly planning of entries on the basis of labour shortages was set up. Besides admissions linked to a specific job offer, this quota system also contemplated a limited slot for jobseekers.

  3. The admission and law enforcement components of the policy were increasingly geared to an explicit foreign policy strategy primarily targeted towards major sending and neighbouring countries (in the first place: Albania, Morocco and Tunisia, followed by others). Such strategic partnerships were built on explicit quid pro quos (cooperation on anti-smuggling activities and readmission, in exchange for targeted technical and financial aid, and privileged admission quotas for certain nationalities).

  4. Finally, during the late 1990s, the foundations were laid for a national integration policy based on a substantial increase of the financial resources available, and an effort to streamline a system where specific integration measures were almost exclusively a matter of competence for regions and local governments.

In 2001, a centre-right coalition won the elections, thanks partly to a noisy, restrictionist campaign against immigration. Some promises were kept, such as a toughening up of forced repatriation law and practices, and a hasty reorientation of admission policy to privilege seasonal workers (86% of all new entrants in 2003). Other promises soon manifested their populist and unrealistic nature, certainly once the startling 2002 regularisation scheme proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Italy had become a large immigration country without noticing, and regardless of the power or wishes of any political majority.

Italy had become a large immigration country without noticing, and regardless of the power or wishes of any political majority

An inescapable European horizon

This thumbnail sketch of Italian immigration policy would remain all too incomplete without the mention of the significant background influence of Europe. Since the early 1990s, European integration has been a powerful factor in the shaping of a national response to immigration. Until 1997-1998, Europe acted mainly as a constraint: most legal and policy innovations in those years were dictated by the need to adapt to a growing Schengen acquis in order to be admitted into that fussy and rigid club. Once a member of Schengen, and finding ourselves in the context of a gradual “communitarisation” of asylum and immigration policy as decided in Amsterdam, Italy soon sought a more significant and autonomous role for itself in the European migratory game.

For a border country with structural immigration needs, the added value of supranational tools in managing migration flows is particularly evident. And in fact, a growing awareness of such fundamental realities has emerged in most sectors of the political spectrum, with some marginal (but unfortunately quite influential) exceptions, such as the erratic nativist movement called Northern League. Nevertheless, a basic core of bipartisan guidelines has been laboriously put together and has even partly survived the highly contentious governmental shift of 2001.

During the last five years or so, the increased self-awareness of their specific migration-related interests and priorities on the part of Italy and other Mediterranean countries contributed to a substantial reshaping and widening of the European agenda (for an overview, see CeSPI’s MigraCtion bulletins). One of the most visible results of this new trend in EU migration policy was the debate on the management of common external borders, which has now dominated JHA policy-making since late 2001.

The decision, finally arrived at in November 2003, to create an EU border management agency, was indeed one of the very few political achievements of this stormy and inconclusive Italian presidency. But sharing the burden of patrolling the Mediterranean or the Carpathian mountains against smugglers and illegal entrants will not be enough to give rise to a comprehensive, fair and effective European migration policy. If a courageous constitutional reform will not speed up EU decision-making through qualified majority voting, and democratise it by giving co-decision powers to the European Parliament, enlarged Europe will continue to suffer migration, rather than be able to manage it to any positive effect.

Expose the ‘dark money’ bankrolling our politics

US Christian ‘fundamentalists’, some linked to Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, have poured at least $50m of ‘dark money’ into Europe over the past decade – boosting the far right.

That's just the tip of the iceberg: we've got many more leads to chase down. Find out more and support our work here.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram