Immigration, a challenge at the heart of Italian life

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), immigration can be defined as the act of moving “to a country other than that of one’s nationality or habitual residence, so that the country of destination effectively becomes the new country of residence”, and is a phenomenon at the heart of all discussions and challenges for state and non-state actors. The IOM defines migration as “movement of a person or a group of persons, either across an international border (international migration), or within a state (internal migration), encompassing any kind of movement of people, whatever its length, composition and causes”. These phenomena have been encouraged by a multidimensional process of increasing integration of human societies on a global scale. In other words, by globalization : this process is said to generate inequalities in development between countries, which, in turn, induce migration. In fact, immigration may be the result of human transfers from countries in political or economic distress to richer, safer countries[1]. Indeed, some individuals are looking for commercial outlets and a better economic, social and cultural situation. However, wars, intra-state conflicts and environmental disasters also contribute to the phenomenon of forced immigration.

The subject of immigration has gained more and more prominence in Western societies and has become a major issue in the public policies pursued by states. The latter have established major intervention policies in response to numerous challenges (economic crises, conflicts, etc.). As a result, there may be a certain instrumentalization of immigration, by modern states, in order to consolidate their borders or acquire new territories first, in order to assert their internal sovereignty. This growing role of immigration in modern societies is accentuated by the media coverage of ships loaded with migrants landing in Europe, particularly in southern Italy. In March 2023, more than 1 300 migrants were rescued by the Italian coastguard and Navy from overcrowded boats. At the same time, a rally was held to pay tribute to the victims of the deadly shipwreck that killed 74 people on February, 26th off the coast of Calabria, in southern Italy. This example aims to show that this media coverage has helped to legitimize the tightening of immigration policies : political actors narrate these events for electoral purposes. Here, we can take an interest in Giorgia Meloni, who was elected on a promise to tighten up migration policy by stopping “illegal immigration” and restoring “citizens’ security”. This desire to tighten things up prompted Giorgia Meloni’s government to declare, in April 2023, a state of emergency for at least six months.

This immigration phenomenon affects southern Italy and, since the beginning of the 2000s, has also affected Sicily, the largest Mediterranean island in southern Italy, as well as the island of Lampedusa, administratively dependent on the Sicilian province of Agrigento. Both have become the main gateways to Europe and the Schengen area, which is an area of free movement of people. Within this area, there are no internal border controls. The Schengen States thus share a common external border (i.e. between a Schengen Member State and a non-Schengen State). In addition, the geopolitics of migration in the Mediterranean Sea is very variable, but give today, Italy, and Sicily in particular, the image of a European border. According to data from the Italian Ministry of the Interior, the year 2014 marks the resumption of landings : 120 238 migrants were intercepted at the Sicilian maritime borders, including 4 194 in Lampedusa. From January, 1st, 2016 to May, 10th, 2016, more than 20 000 migrants landed in Sicily, including 4 429 in Lampedusa. More generally, between January 1st, 2023 and May 18th, 2023, 45 507 migrants landed on the coasts of southern Italy[2]: numbers that are constantly changing.

Italy and the island of Lampedusa marked by immigration: a gateway to Europe.

Immigration has affected, and continues to affect, the whole world : all countries are trying to cope with the many challenges associated with this displacement of populations. However, Europe, of which Lampedusa is its symbol, is, for some, a strategic point due to its proximity to countries in difficulty, such as Libya. They see Europe as an opportunity to build a better future : it would bring a certain security for those who want to settle here. Italy, and in particular its Sicilian region, is the gateway to this brighter future.

For a long time, Italy’s migratory tradition was a one-way street, especially between the 19th and the 20th centuries : we can mention the “Italian diaspora”, which is a massive emigration in the 19th century of “healthy, un-professionalized men willing to do any kind of work”, who were later joined by their families[3]. France, Austria, Germany and Switzerland were the preferred destinations for emigrants at that time in history. In 2017, about 285 000 citizens left Italy, mostly between the ages of 25 and 44, a flow that has increased by 50% over the last 10 years[4]. In the 2000s, the number of descendants of Italian migrants worldwide was estimated to be between 40 and 60 million, according to lecturer of Education and Research Hervé Rayner. Over the years, however, Italy has become a country of immigration : the share of foreigners in the Italian population has increased sharply : 0,6 % in 1991, 2,3% in 2001 and 6,7% in 2008. Ten years later, in 2018, the foreign component represents almost 8% of the total population, with just over 5 million foreigners resident, according to Cecilia Fortunato, PhD student in Statistical and Demographic Sciences, and Elena Ambrosetti, Associate Professor of Demography.

Beyond the framing given to this phenomenon in the media and political debates, immigration has profoundly transformed Italian society. Sicily, and in particular the province of Agrigento, on which the island of Lampedusa depends, are not spared. In recent decades, Sicily has become a border island at the heart of international flows of migrants seeking to enter into the European Union. Lampedusa represents a major geopolitical challenge : this island of almost 6 000 inhabitants and 20 square kilometers faces Africa, about 100 kilometers off the coast of Tunisia and 300 kilometers from the coast of Libya. More than 31 000 people have already tried to cross the Mediterranean sea and reach the country : these individuals mostly depart from Tunisia, but also from Libya and Turkey. Since January 2023, at least 492 people have died before they could set foot in Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). According to Le Monde’s Rome correspondent, Allan Kaval, these numbers are rising sharply, up 300% on the same period in 2022.

The migrants rescued by the Italian coastguard, and those who were able to land off the island, are then sent to the “hotspot” of Lampedusa, located in the middle of the island. A “hotspot” is a European approach to improve the process of identifying, registering and fingerprinting arriving migrants. In other words, a “hotspot” is a reception center, built out of sight. As of April 2023, over 400 migrants were in this closed center, whose capacity is limited to 350 places, forcing some to sleep outside. These conditions of detention were at the heart of Italy’s conviction on March, 30th, 2023 by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). This case have been brought by four Tunisians who landed on the island in 2017. The ECHR considered that their detention had “no clear legal basis”, which prevented them from challenging it in court.

Subsequently, the migrants are scattered throughout Sicily and Italy : 170 people were able, for example, to board a ferry to Porto Empedocle, in southern Sicily, a municipality belonging to the province of Agrigento.

Immigration, a challenge at the heart of international cooperation and tensions.

Faced with the acceleration of immigration in recent years in Italy, and more particularly since the beginning of this year, the Italian Council of Ministers had announced, on April, 11th, 2023, that it would be preparing to institute, for at least six months, a state of emergency for migration throughout Italy. This state of emergency would allow the implementation of a series of measures aimed at tightening up Italy’s migration policy, in particular on the issues of reception and access quotas. In addition, this decision has led to the abolition of the “special permission”, introduced in 2020, to rescue and prevent the expulsion of migrants who are said to be in “serious psychophysical health conditions”. According to Ludmila Acone, doctor of Italian history, the introduction of the state of emergency would aim to block all forms of immigration, including humanitarian ones, and “consider migration as something almost criminal”. The Italian government can now decide on extraordinary measures without a vote in parliament. It also makes it possible to release funds and speed up reception procedures by the designation, without calls for tender, of accommodation facilities under the authority of the Ministry of Interior.

Italy’s management of immigration has been strongly criticized by its European neighbors : for some, it is a criminalizing and anti-migrant policy, while, for others, it is not an effective policy. These disagreements have even led to a diplomatic crisis between France and Italy. The head of Italian diplomacy, Antonio Tajani, canceled his first visit to Paris on Thursday, May 4th, after words described as “unacceptable” by the French Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin, about the Italian Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni. The French Interior Minister has strongly criticized Italy’s migration management, claiming that the Italian Prime Minister was “unable to solve the migration problems on which she was elected”. Gérald Darmanin also blames Rome for “the influx of migrants, especially minors” into the south of France. Rome’s reaction to the attack did not take long : the head of Italian diplomacy, who was expected in Paris for a meeting with his counterpart, Catherine Colonna, immediately cancelled his visit, declaring that “the offenses against the government and Italy launched by Mr. Darmanin are unacceptable”. Immigration has been a sensitive issue in Franco-Italian relations for years : initial tensions had arisen when Meloni’s government refused to allow a humanitarian ship belonging to the NGO “SOS Méditerranée” to dock. The ship was eventually welcomed in Toulon, in the South of France, with more than two hundred migrants on board.

On a more international level, the European Union, and its member states, want to put in place an “effective, humanitarian and safe” European migration policy, where the European Council would set strategic priorities. Based on these priorities, the EU Council would establish lines of action and provide mandates for negotiations with third countries. The European Union is also trying to provide a response to immigration on the Central Mediterranean route : migrants and asylum seekers use the Central Mediterranean route to enter the EU irregularly. They undertake long and perilous journeys from North Africa and Turkey, crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Italy. Therefore, in collaboration with the African Union and the United Nations, the EU has set up a Joint Working Group on Migration. The objective of the group is to join efforts and strengthen cooperation to address migration challenges in Africa, particularly in Libya. In December 2022, the EU and its African partners launched initiatives, including the Central Mediterranean Route, to ensure that member states and the EU make “joint efforts to address the challenges of migration. These initiatives include a specific initiative mobilizing €1.13 billion to cooperate with relevant African partners”.[5]

Furthermore, on April, 13th, 2023, Volker Türk, the UN’s Chief Human Rights Officer expressed his alarm at the situation of asylum seekers and migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean sea. The High Commissioner welcomed the efforts of the Italian coastguard to rescue migrants at sea, called on the EU and its Member States to strengthen their solidarity with Italy, and urged the Italian government to abandon the law adopted earlier this year, which aimed to restrict civil search and rescue operations.

The Sicilian population and immigration : a desire for integration

Despite a negative and problematic image conveyed by some states, and beyond the established international cooperation, immigration can also be a source of development for a country. The Italian National Office against Racial Discrimination (UNAR) and the IDOS Study and Research Centre have sought to demonstrate, over the years and through their “Statistical File on Immigration”, the positive impact that immigration can have. In the last decade, people with an immigrant background contributed 12% of Italy’s GDP and paid €13.3 billion in taxes every year. Their report also indicates that nearly 80 000 children were born to migrant parents in Italy in the 2010s, and the number of foreign companies in the country increased by 5,4% during the same period. Moreover, according to a report published on April, 11th, 2023, by the Italian Ministry of Economy and Finance, the increase in the number of migrants could reduce the public debt and have a positive effect on the Italian budget.

In Sicily, immigration is not seen as a threat by some, is not seen as something harmful and takes the opposite side of the rhetoric fed by far-right parties. In Palermo, Catania and Sutera, immigration is seen as an opportunity to cope with poverty in southern Italy, hit by desertification and unemployment. The local population, such as the municipality of Palermo, aims to facilitate the integration of immigrants, with Italian language courses and accommodation centers for asylum seekers. On the eastern coast of Sicily, the port of Catania faces the disembarkation of boats overloaded with people looking for a better future. Since the closure of the Balkan road, most arrivals from the southern Mediterranean now take place via the Sicilian Channel. The occupants of the boats are usually rescued at sea and then transported directly to the ports of Pozzallo, Augusta or Catania without passing through the “hotspot” of Lampedusa.

Most migrants try to continue their journey to northern Europe, or are simply “redistributed” to other Italian regions. The deputy prefect of Catania even told the French newspaper “Libération” that : “The reception system for migrants in the port is well established. We coordinate the whole thing. We get in touch with the coastguard to find out the exact time of arrival. The prefecture will notify all the actors involved in the disembarkation : police, town hall, civil protection, social services, the Red Cross, humanitarian organizations ”. This will allow the volunteers of the Catholic Community of Sant ’Egidio, who, when they arrive, take care of unaccompanied minors, to be connected by WhatsApp and be ready, at any time, to disembark at the port to rescue the immigrants. This solidarity has grown stronger over time and has even been structured throughout Sicily : tens of thousands of migrants remain on the island every year, waiting for a residence permit or a political refugee status. This solidarity is largely ensured by voluntary associations but also by local politicians. In October 2013, Giuseppe Grizzanti, doctor and mayor of Sutera, received a call from the prefecture of Agrigento : a boat had wrecked near Lampedusa, killing no fewer than 300 people. The authorities wanted to know if there was room left in the municipal cemetery to bury some victims. However, the mayor confided that : “We did not have any available graves. But that’s when we thought that instead of welcoming the dead, we could welcome the living. Especially since in Sutera, there are many empty houses”[6].

Beyond this solidarity, the presence of migrants has made it possible to revive demography. State subsidies for the reception of refugees help the economic activity of several Sicilian villages, notably through the rental of houses and the financing of the Girasoli Association, which runs the integration program. The head of the organization, Nunzio Viellaro, told the newspaper “Libération” that : “In the beginning, we housed 15 people, and then little by little we grew to 50. They come from Tunisia, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Gambia, Pakistan, Afghanistan. Thanks to their children, the school remains open. So much so that in 2016, there were six births in Sutera. Five were children of foreigners. They are now an integral part of the village”. However, with high unemployment and limited labor supply in Sicily, migrants are eventually condemned to move to northern Italy and try to find new opportunities. Sicily offers a medium-term solution, which gives immigrants time to obtain the necessary documents in order to secure their future in Europe. For journalist and writer Gaetano Basile, the presence of foreigners allows Sicily to rediscover its vocation as a crossroads of the Mediterranean sea.

Sicily has thus become a remarkable field of cultural exchange : it nourishes the hopes and dreams of those who risk their lives for a better future. However, immigration often succeeds in establishing a double paradox : the cultures of migrants are socially constructed as inferior, inferior by society, but society never fully succeeds in giving them access to the culture considered “dominant”.

[1] Courtecuisse, Claire. « Immigration », Nicolas Kada éd., Dictionnaire d’administration publique. Presses universitaires de Grenoble, 2014, pp. 265-266.

[2] Department of Civil Liberties and Immigration, Statistical Dashboard of May 18, 2023

[3] « L’immigration italienne en France et dans le monde: dates, lieux et repères chronologiques », Guilia Del Grande.

[4] Fortunato Cecilia , Ambrosetti Elena and Translation : Fournier Malou , “La population italienne depuis 1861, histoire d’un renversement démographique”, Géoconfluences, February 2020.

[5] Council of the EU and European Council website, « Flux migratoires sur la route de la Méditerranée centrale »,

[6] Jozsef, Eric, “Reportage. En Sicile, ‘une chose très belle est arrivé, nous avons été envahis par les immigrés'”, Libération, January 9, 2018.

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