League party leader Matteo Salvini said Lampedusa island should not become "Europe's refugee camp"

Anti-immigrant rhetoric refutes Italy’s dependence on foreign labor

League party leader Matteo Salvini said that the island of Lampedusa should not become a “European refugee camp” – Copyright AFP Juan BARRETO

Gildas LE ROU

The Italian far-right has made anti-immigrant rhetoric a mainstay of its September 25 election campaign, even though the eurozone’s third-largest economy would have ground to a halt without foreign labor.

Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni and League member Matteo Salvini are pursuing a nationalist “Italians First” agenda that looks set to bring them to power, with promises to end mass migration a central part of their agenda.

One of the first stops of Salvini’s campaign was on the tiny island of Lampedusa, the landing site for many of the tens of thousands of migrants who annually reach Italian shores from North Africa. He said that Lampedusa could not become a “European refugee camp”.

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

Meloni insists that she is making a distinction between people fleeing conflict and illegal economic migrants.

But last month, she came under fire for reposting a video of a woman allegedly being raped by an asylum seeker in an Italian city, which was later taken down for violating social media rules.

“Unfortunately, our political debate links immigrants to landings … creating the idea of ​​huge flows … while the actual number of immigrants in Italy has remained stable for a decade,” said Maurizio Ambrosini, a sociologist at the University of Milan.

The views of political leaders coincide with those of many Italians.

According to a YouGov poll conducted last December for several newspapers across Europe, 77% of the population consider immigration levels “too high” – 10 points above the European Union average.

Their biggest concern about immigration was the fear of rising crime. This was indicated by about 53 percent of the Italians polled, up to 76 percent of the voters of the “Brothers of Italy” and 67 percent of the voters of the League.

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

But they often find it difficult to explain this to their constituents “because it’s an unpopular topic, and it’s easier to have a discussion about exclusion and hostility that’s immediately understandable.”

– Campaign slogans –

However, migrants are a potential lifeline for Italy, which, according to official figures, could lose more than 20 percent of its population in the next 50 years due to a declining birth rate.

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

In a report last year, the national statistical agency ISTAT warned of “the implications (of this trend) for the labor market” and “the pressure the country will have to face” to fund the pension and healthcare systems.

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

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

This dependency came into play during the coronavirus pandemic, when – due to the risk of crop rotting in the fields – farmers planned to bring in seasonal workers from Romania and Morocco.

At the time, one grower in northern Italy, Martin Foradori Hofstetter, explained to AFP: “Theoretically, I could find workers here in Italy, but now Italians don’t want to work in the fields or in the vineyards.”

On Sunday, Salvini offered his solution to stop the depopulation of many Italian villages: “We don’t need migrants to populate the villages. Let’s make the Italians pay less taxes and you’ll see how they populate these little places.”

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

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