In this interview for #DialogueOnEurope, Valentina Fabbri highlights flaws and particularities of the Italian system and its effects on refugees living in various capacities in Italy, comparing these to the European context.
What kind of historical experience with migration, immigration, emigration does Italy have?
As everybody says Italy has a short history of being an immigration country. Since the 1980s Italy was a country with a lot of emigration, so people from Europe decided to go abroad in the search of a better life and a better job. It’s been proved by the fact that the first law on migration was passed in 1986, so it was only very recently that people first saw foreign people coming to our country, bringing their competences in search of a job. That was 30 years ago, so not all so long ago. This characteristic, is often used as an excuse in how we manage fluxes in migration. So we always use the fact that we are a recent country of migration to say that we are not yet able to properly manage the integration and of people with an effective system.
So Italy is a recent story. We can say that we grew up really fast because we always have to take two factors into consideration. On one hand we have migration for work – people who come to Italy following strict rules. We plan each year how many people can come to Italy to work or to study. This group forms the largest percent of migrants who live in Italy. They are about five million in our country. And they don’t come from Africa or Afghanistan, they come from the Philippines, Romania – so some are also EU citizens, and they come from Peru, Morocco. They are from several countries all around the globe that are not countries from which we are used to see migrants coming for instance by boat in in the southern coasts. This is the biggest part that no one talks about – nobody over the course of the past two years has talked about this type of migration where people work and pay taxes alongside Italian citizens. On the other hand, over the past four or five years the amount of people arriving for reasons such as persecution, war, environmental problems in their home country has significantly increased and the mostly seek asylum. So it’s three years that more than one hundred thousand people arrived in Italy, since then average forty thousand people arrive each year. It can be viewed as a two-sided process: one side is the face of migration which is growing in a stable way and the other side is forced migration..
You mentioned that Italy has not been a country of immigration for long. Do you think there have been any lessons learned from the integration policies over the course of the past decade – how did it develop and how it has been improved?
I think that integration has become the focus of migration for the past five years. At the beginning there was an attempt to include integration into the regular system of migration. We have an integration agreement, which migrants who come to Italy are obliged to sign, we have integration courses to help immigrants integrate into our society so we have taken some steps towards forming an integration policy. And these steps are offered to people who come to Italy with a project or a plan when they immigrate, i.e. they come here to work, to study or to join their family. On the other hand, what has developed over the course of the past few years is the integration of refugees, of people who seek and obtain protection. This is a different issue because when you think about the integration of refugees you have to think about everything – job market, housing. Within one and a half year they have to be able to be independent because the system cannot support them for any longer. So this is the integration that we are talking about. Some people call this social inclusion, some people call this inclusion or integration but this is what we are talking about, what Europe is talking about, what the United Nations is talking about.
In Italy it is an issue because compared to some other European countries, we don’t have such a strong welfare system. So whilst in other countries you can fall back on existing social systems, such as social assistance, schooling, housing, public housing, we don’t have an efficient system which can provide everyone with an answer, especially not newcomers. So this created a parallel system, partly supported by European funds – the Asylum, Migration, Integration Fund (AMIF) – and managed by municipalities and civil society so private NGOs which run projects in order to help them find a job or to find them a house or to support them with the rent for a house. It’s not something that’s organised strategically on a national level. So we can say we have an ever broadening and more efficient reception system on a national level that has created an integrated reception system managed by the ministry of the interior. Furthermore, across Italy we have more than 120,000 places of hospitality which act as a first port of call. What is still lacking is the integration part. After a year, year and a half, it’s really hard for a refugee to be on their feet and ready to go, to look for job and to find a job in order to rent a house. So we can say that we must be aware about what integration is and we now know that integration is the answer. We cannot build enough walls to stop people coming because people are risking their lives to come here, so a wall is not going to stop them. And of course we signed an international convention, we are obliged to give these people a safe place but it’s not enough anymore. Ten years ago we still thought ‘ok we can send them to Libya’, we even bombed ships before they left the coast. Now these are the facts: They arrive and we have to encourage integration without a welfare system that can help properly. The government needs to provide more funding and develop good regulations to help municipalities, first of all, to implement a process of integration.
So if you were to list the challenges of Italian migration and integration policy very practically and concretely, what would you put on the list? What needs to be dealt with most urgently?
First of all we need to offer refugees the possibility of having their qualifications from their country of origin recognised because it’s difficult to come with a degree certificate in your pocket when you’re escaping war. We must find a way to recognise what they have done and what they know so they can enter the job market more easily. Then we have to find a way to make arrangements with large companies or with representatives of production firms to give jobs to refugees. We have to be discriminatory. We have to be aware that Italian people will say, ‘you’re giving them a job and not us’. We have to help refugees to become productive and not to be a social expense. It would be better for everyone, not least for the refugees, if we help the companies to understand the situation of the refugees and to foresee some measures that can facilitate this understanding. So an arrangement or agreement, possibly a discount on taxes for refugees and maybe also for other people, not only for refugees. These are the first measures to be taken. If you start with jobs then the salary from this job can help people rent a house and to be independent as we don’t have any kind of public housing which is efficient enough to provide everyone with housing. So in answer to the question: an open market and a good way to give them recognition for what they have achieved in the past.
The influx of refugees has been a recurring topic over the past year and a half, not only on a European level but also on a national level, and especially frontline countries like Greece or Italy, which because of their geographical location are very much impacted. Was this issue instrumentalized politically? Were there any political actors or stakeholders who used this situation in their own interests?
Yes, of course. The thought of 120,000 people entering Italy scares everybody, even if we realise how many 120,000 people are and that it’s not that many people. Especially if you live in Rome where you have buildings which host thousands of people but they use these numbers to scare us. Of course they arrived altogether so it seems scary but I always say that we have enough space. Then there are two issues: many people who enter Italy do not want to stay in Italy, as in Greece, they travel on and we do not finger print them anymore and so we allow them to continue on in Europe to Germany, France, Austria, where the conditions for living and working are better. We have one hundred Syrians, so it’s nothing compared to the number your country has for example.
Of course the political debate and political opinions instrumentalise the numbers that are arriving and there are some political parties that campaign using these numbers but this is happening everywhere, in Germany, last week in the election in Italy and in the United States of America with Donald Trump. Migration is never a neutral topic, we are never talking about human beings but we are talking about left or right-wing and it’s a mess. It will pass because our society will be increasing comprised of migrants, we grow together and in one hundred years we will most likely see things from a different perspective.
What is public opinion about the arrival of the refugees? Is it affected by the way political discourse is using the situation?
You have sensitive people who welcome refugees, you have non-sensitive people who say ‘they’re stealing our jobs, they rob our apartments, they stink’ and these are the other parties usually connected to the political right-wing. Then you have people who do not care who say ‘yes of course they can be dangerous’ but if they meet some refugees who need something they are the first to give. So I would say there are three different groups within the population, for, against, and somewhere in-between. Everybody says, and I think it’s true, that Italians are good people. Maybe good people when they meet people who are suffering will help.
Has the refugee crisis fuelled or contributed to the rise of a right-wing populist agenda in Italy?
Yes, this is why the right wing or the ‘Lega Nord’ is growing. Some say ‘I agree with them, we cannot allow people to enter, I’ll vote for them’. Migration is just one of the problems which we have at the moment. In the last administrative election it wasn’t the left or the right-wing parties which won but a party which represents the citizens. This party is called ‘Movimento 5 Stelle’ and they don’t have a specific migration policy. They talk about what citizens need – work, schools, basic rights – so hate towards migrants did not win this election. The left-wing may have lost a lot of votes because of migration but the left also lost a lot of votes because people are fed up with the political mechanisms. Migration is an issue I would say but not for people who vote for this new movement because they focus on the many other problems in society.
What’s the role of organisations like your organisation in developing migration policy? Are the think tanks or NGOs influential in Italy? Do the authorities look for this very hands on kind of experience?
I don’t know what kind of experience the authorities look towards and maybe they have some other contacts, of course they are in touch with the UNHCR and with the national association of Italian municipalities which also represent the reception system across the country. I don’t know who else they would call to help them make policies. Of course they have some experts but not in civil society like this project does and like the European Union sometimes does. They are more selective in choosing which people to listen to. My association is an association which works on the ground, so we work in Rome and we do approach the Rome municipality sometimes in order to create something new but it also depends on the political alignment of the government of the city of Rome as to whether they take any notice or not. We help refugees to find a job, give them classes, help to train companies about the situation of refugees, helping them to find something practical. Of course the numbers we reach are not as high as the country needs to reach but it’s something that we do, alongside many other associations like ours which have different means and different goals. For instance, participating to the Asylum Migration Integration Fund you have a very precise topic or problem which you have to focus on in your project. This means the funding bodies can direct the intervention. And it’s the only funding available which is separate from Ministry funds.
During recent years Europe has been in a constant crisis, first it was the economic crisis, then it was the influx of refugees, which has been referred to as a crisis, it is perhaps a humanitarian crisis not a refugee crisis – in the light of this how do you think the German-Italian relationship has developed in this situation? The financial crisis had the face of the bad Germans who imposed austerity measures on many southern countries but in the migration situation it’s actually Germany that tried to ease it somehow by taking the immigrants, so how do you think the dynamic has developed between Italy and Germany?
From my perspective: Everybody knows Germany is the leader of the European Union, so everybody is much more aware of what Germany says than of what Italy says. So when the Prime Minister says we will give hospitality to 1 million Syrian refugees, the first group of people says ‘did you see Germany?’ and the second group of people says ‘did you see Germany? – they are crazy’. I cannot give you a useful answer to your question, that is something which is above me. The humanitarian crisis has brought many problems in Europe to the surface. When everything is fine everybody loves each other, when something goes wrong, everybody hates each other. It’s the same in a family, at work and on a national level. So the economic price connected to migration influx may be greater than previously expected, even if the number which Germany has accepted cannot be compared to the Italy. Italy is a frontline country so we can claim something from the European Union because we cannot stand it anymore, just as Greece cannot continue to act alone anymore, that could be country acceptance quotas for asylum seekers across Europe. There is a relocation programme but it has only relocated 2000 people in two years, which is nothing. We can do better considering the number the country can receive and the number the country has already received. So maybe the fact that Italy is on the frontline will give us more leverage for agreeing another contract with Germany and France.
I would like to thank you very much for your time.
The interview was conducted by Maria Skóra.
Valentina Fabbri – After graduating in Political Science at “La Sapienza” University of Rome and a specialization in international relationship in 2003, I started working with refugees and migrants as legal advisor in the Italian Mission for Medecins sans Frontieres. As an expert in the field of migration in the last 13 years, I participated to European initiatives, delivered lessons for public and private sector and cooperating in the writing of articles. Starting May 2011 I am the President of the Social Cooperative Programma integra that since 2005 promotes the integration for migrants and refugees in Rome focusing my attention on the creation of methodologies to improve integration measures to help migrants to be part of the community and the community to receive migrants.