Anti-immigrant rhetoric belies Italy’s reliance on foreign workers

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Lega party leader Matteo Salvini said Lampedusa island must not become “Europe’s refugee camp” – Copyright AFP Juan BARRETO

Gildas LE ROUX

Italy’s far right has put anti-immigrant rhetoric at the heart of its campaign for September 25 elections, even though the euro zone’s third-largest economy would freeze without a foreign workforce.

Leaders of the Brothers of Italy Giorgia Meloni and the League’s Matteo Salvini have pursued a nationalist “Italian First” agenda aimed at bringing them to power, with a promise to end mass migration a central part of their programme.

One of Salvini’s first campaign stops was the tiny island of Lampedusa, the landing point for many of the tens of thousands of migrants who arrive on Italian shores from North Africa each year. He said Lampedusa could not become “Europe’s refugee camp”.

“Only those with permission should enter Italy,” he said on Sunday before a mass meeting of his Lega party.

Meloni has insisted that she distinguishes between people fleeing conflict and irregular economic migrants.

But she was criticized last month for posting a video of a woman allegedly raped by an asylum seeker in an Italian town, which was later removed for breaking social media rules.

“Unfortunately, our political debate associates immigrants with landings… giving rise to the notion of huge flows… while the actual number of immigrants in Italy has been stable for a decade,” said Maurizio Ambrosini, a sociologist at the University of Milan.

The political leaders’ views are in line with those of many Italians.

According to a YouGov poll last December for several newspapers across Europe, 77 percent of the population say the immigration rate is “too high” – 10 points above the EU average.

Her biggest concern about immigration was fear of a rise in crime. This was mentioned by around 53 percent of Italians polled, up from 76 percent of Brothers of Italy voters and 67 percent of Lega voters.

In contrast, the center-left Democratic Party and center “see immigrants as a resource for the Italian economy,” Ambrosini said.

But they often have trouble explaining that to their constituents “because it’s an unpopular topic and it’s easier to have a debate about exclusion and hostility that’s immediately understandable.”

– Campaign Slogans –

But migrants are a potential lifeline for Italy, which officials say could lose more than 20 percent of its population over the next 50 years due to a falling birth rate.

This decline is accompanied by a general aging of the population.

In a report last year, the national statistics agency ISTAT warned of the “impact (of this development) on the labor market” and “the pressures the country will face” to fund its pensions and healthcare system.

The labor market is already heavily dependent on immigration, particularly for low-skill jobs in agriculture, construction, domestic help and hospitality.

Italy’s estimated 2.5 million legal immigrants make up more than 10 percent of the workforce.

That dependency was laid bare during the coronavirus pandemic, when agricultural producers — at risk of crops rotting in the fields — signed plans to hire seasonal workers from Romania and Morocco.

At the time, a grower from northern Italy, Martin Foradori Hofstatter, told AFP: “In theory I could have found workers here in Italy, but now the Italians don’t want to work in the fields or in the vineyards.”

On Sunday, Salvini offered his solution to stop the emptying of many Italian villages: “We don’t need migrants to repopulate villages. Let’s get the Italians to pay less tax and you’ll see them repopulate these little places.”

But Ambrosini warned: “Complex issues … do not lend themselves to simple campaign slogans.”

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