Once the Italians were the ones leaving home and arriving on someone else’s shores, but now Italy is a major host country to the new immigrant populations. In the late 1800s, just around the time that Garibaldi was ‘inventing’ Italy, Italians were the one of the world’s most ubiquitous exports. Overpopulation, poverty and plenty of natural disasters affirmed that the Italian peninsula was a place to avoid. Rising birthrates and falling death rates exacerbated an already critical problem in the desperately poor southern Mezzogiorno, with illiteracy at a staggering 70 percent. Further difficulties came in the form of taxes and protective tariffs on goods coming in from the north.
As often happens in Italy in times of severe hardship, rather than fostering group solidarity amongst villages, towns, provinces or even regions, the events simply served to further reinforce family ties, and the laws of familial loyalty, duties and behaviour became a nonnegotiable way of life.
New life in the United States and other New World countries offered a solution to millions of families, and so their men folk emigrated to find jobs. Their intention was not to move permanently, but simply to finance their families through the hard times and ensure survival. Most of the emigrants were men, and most were unskilled and uneducated, finding employment mostly as labourers or by starting small businesses.
In the two decades since the eastern European shake ups, Italy has amassed a large Romanian and Albanian presence, many of whom find work as unskilled labourers, caregivers for the elderly and housekeepers. It also has a big Chinese presence, mostly in northeast Florence and Prato, likewise labourers but also entrepreneurs. Italy has a sizable number of immigrants from central Africa, many of whom are road workers and gas station attendants. With Italy’s border a mere 100km away from the Tunisian and Libyan coastlines, into the new immigrant mix has come a constant flow of North Africans; with the recent popular uprisings there, a steep increase in arrivals is expected.
Putting aside the issue of the legal status of these immigrants (Italy has a huge capacity to absorb illegal immigrants as a vast black-market economy still thrives despite Brussels’ best efforts), let’s consider for a moment the probable implications of these immigrants for Italy’s future.
For the first time, this very young country called Italy, which turns 150 years old on March 17, has to cope with large-scale immigrant influxes into its very tight-knit, family-values-based society. Add to that all the usual problems of absorbing people with different values, people who can’t (yet) communicate in the language, and the situation begins to look grim.
However, as evinced by experience elsewhere and forecast by countless academic studies, these immigrant groups hold the promise of Italy’s economic future. The current brain-drain crisis, a sluggish economy, few skilled jobs available, high unemployment among the educated, low salaries: all these are indicators that positions will be slowly opening up in Italy not only for the unskilled, but for the skilled, too.
Italy and Spain now have the fastest growing immigrant populations in Europe. Over 7 percent of the residential population is currently estimated to hold foreign passports. Their children, the second-generation immigrants, over half a million births in 2009, will be a vital part of the future Italian workforce. And that number does not include births to immigrants who have achieved Italian citizenship or the ones here illegally.
Italy has turned 180 degrees, from sending guests to playing host. One hundred and fifty years ago, Italians were generally good guests: hardworking, modest drinkers, mostly law-abiding and very family-oriented people, bringing a package of great culture along with them in their suitcases: cuisine, music, entertainment, art. It is going to be fascinating to see how they work out as hosts in this difficult climate.
In Italian there is a saying, ‘A guest is like a fish. After three days, it stinks.’ Well, some of these guests are going to be cooking their fish and inviting the Italians to dine. Who knows? It could be a great party!