Let’s face the truth about immigration in Italy: the country is not overloaded by millions of refugees. In fact, the majority of people who arrived on the Italian coast during recent years didn’t even have the chance to become refugees. They arrived as asylum-seekers and were compelled to leave as illegal immigrants.
In 2017, out of 81,527 asylum claimants, only 8 percent (6,827) were granted refugee status, another 8 percent (6,880) received subsidiary protection and 25 percent (20,166) were given humanitarian protection – a sort of “lower-level” asylum, issued by the Police Department, that allows its holders to stay in the country for up to two years. The largest proportion of the requests – 58 percent (46,992) – were denied, that is, these immigrants didn’t receive any kind of international protection. The statistics of the previous years are very similar.
Even though the images shared by the media of boats and boats of “refugees” disembarking on the Italian coast are still very alive in our memories, truth is that those who stay are very few, and the number of people who are sent back to the limbo of displacement isn’t highlighted on the front page of any newspaper.
The new anti-migrant decree, which was unanimously approved by the Italian council of ministers on September 24, is checkmate for the already scanty rights of immigrants who live in the country. The far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, was very clear about his priorities earlier this year: “send them home”. And that’s exactly what he is fighting for.
Send ‘em home
A big step to expanding the borders of Italy, the “Salvini Decree” is based on a new set of six criteria governing the award of humanitarian protection to asylum seekers. Besides, it seems that his latest strategy is to criminalize the immigrants even before checking their precedents. He recently accused Tunisia of sending convicts to Italy in migrant boats, causing a diplomatic row. Salvini is engaged in the task of expelling migrants who “endanger society”, but to this day it is still not clear what or whom he considers dangerous – I dare say a different skin colour might be enough to frighten him.
In late August, Salvini joined forces with the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, in the aim of creating an anti-migration front to oppose Emmanuel Macron’s and George Soros’ pro-migrant policies. This is anything but a smart move on his part, since Italy should be greeting immigrants with a big smile due to the rapid ageing of its population and the need of a younthful workforce to deal with the pensions problem. According to the Ministry of the Economy and Finance, there were nearly 34 pensioners for every 100 workers in Italy in 2015, and the projections don’t get any better: 60 pensioners are expected for every 100 workers in 2070.
Sending immigrants home is not going to solve this issue, it will only worsen it. In times when the government doesn’t know how to deal with popular dissatisfaction, the tendency is to find a foreign scapegoat to bear the burden of its failures. Therefore, some Italian politicians are trying to point to immigration as the primary cause of all the country’s problems. This is not true, and when the immigrants are expelled they will be forced to look to their own internal problems without having anyone else to blame.
In a small city in southern Italy, there are announcements all over the police headquarters saying: “Do you want to go back to your country of origin? Contact us! Volunteer assisted return and reintegration”. It goes without saying that assisted return is nothing but a joke. A government that makes an agreement with Libya to stop immigrants – more than often through torture and slavery – from fleeing war and persecution can’t be given any credit for an “assisted return” promise.
Hope not hate
I live in Italy, and while I see furious people supporting Salvini’s anti-migrant hate speech, I also see some immigration department workers giving their best efforts to understand the problems of the foreigners and trying to figure out how they can help – even when the only help they can give is to reprehend their rude colleagues who are screaming at asylum-seekers. As a foreign-born resident myself, I can say that experiencing decent treatment given by a government worker is very meaningful. Immigrants are vulnerable and a simple act of kindness puts us in the much more comfortable position of standing up for our rights and looking for solutions to the daily challenges.
I know many people support Salvini and his ideas, I know the people who follow him are desperate for changes because life hasn’t been easy for southern Europeans since the 2008 crisis, but I also know hate is not the answer. I see kind and open-hearted Italians receiving immigrants, being empathic to their suffering, employing them in their businesses – because they know this will make the country prosper, not lead it to ruin. And I ask these Italians, myself included, to do our best spreading the word that immigration is not an Italian problem, it is a solution. Immigration stimulates development, raises diversity and enriches culture. The Italian people are an immigrant people – the historical mass migration to South America of the early 1900s is a proof of it.
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The power of tyrants is given by the people. Without support, they are just ordinary men. We can’t stand idly by while atrocities are encouraged by new laws, we must speak up. As during the Reich cited by Félix Guattari in The Anti-Oedipus: “No, the masses were not deceived, they desired fascism, and that is what has to be explained”.
Marcela Gola Boutros is master’s student in Migrations, Inter-ethnicity and Transnationalism at School of Social Sciences and Humanities, Universidade NOVA de Lisboa, Portugal. Her ongoing research focus is on the access to higher education among international protection holders and asylum seekers in Europe.