Negotiating Identities: The Perception and Well-Being of Immigrants in Italy

(Featured Image: Migrants in the Mediterranean, August 2017.)

My great grandmother—Grandma Tessie—came to America from Italy when she was a little girl. Growing up in my big Italian family, I was always ingrained with bits of Italian wisdom and culture, hearing stories about my distant relatives in Italy. In school, we learned about Italian immigrants coming to America—arriving through Ellis Island, facing racism and negativity, and eventually “becoming white” and assimilating.

Historically, Italy has experienced mass migration, but it has only recently become a destination rather than an origin, with numbers of immigrants peaking in 2016 and turning immigration into a hot-button political issue. Immigration policy has become a question of national identity, seeing rising discussion of cultural distance and cultural integration, as well as a rise of extremist nationalists.

But beyond just policy, as someone who fully intends to relocate to Europe in the coming years, I’m interested in the ways immigrants adapt, or don’t adapt, to the dominant culture in Italy. Because behind the policy is a very important undercurrent of perception and well-being: the perception of migrants from born-Italians, and the personal well-being and happiness of migrants who relocated to Italy.

Perception of Immigrants & Historical Background

Italy has only recently become a point of arrival for immigrants, where it had previously had a long tradition of emigration. So in the 1990s, when Albanians began to flood Italy, the sudden influx of foreigners was quickly seen as a threat:

“The image of daily arrivals of immigrants who threw themselves from ships and swam to the beach filled the front pages of newspapers and the central spaces of TV news. Although not at first, little by little an idea of invasion was built up. … Since then, the discourse of fear began to be built and, soon after, its political use emerged, as the invasion of these contemporary barbarians had to be blocked in order to protect the nation.”  

“The image of daily arrivals of immigrants who threw themselves from ships and swam to the beach filled the front pages of newspapers and the central spaces of TV news. Although not at first, little by little an idea of invasion was built up. … Since then, the discourse of fear began to be built and, soon after, its political use emerged, as the invasion of these contemporary barbarians had to be blocked in order to protect the nation.”  

—Fear, intolerance, resignation: some readings on contemporary immigration in Italy)

The trend of increased immigration continued while asylum applications “exploded” as countries like France, Switzerland, and Austria closed their borders. This led to a peak between August 2016 and July 2017, when 183,000 migrants reached Italy, many of them Libyan asylum-seekers. With these increasing numbers, nationalist ideals have also grown. In 2018, right-wing groups flourished and the election cycle was centered around the slogan, “Italians First,” as anti-immigration sentiment grew. Somewhere around 600,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Italy from 2014-2018, and with immigration comes differences in culture, and with that, a need for both Italians and migrants to adapt to one another. 

Several thousand Italians marched in an anti-migrant rally in Rome in October 2017.”

For Italians, the perception of immigrants varies based on many factors . The study Attitudes towards National Identity,  Immigration and Refugees in Italy surveyed Italians and revealed somewhat contradictory views. 61 percent of Italians “feel concerned about the rise of racism and discrimination,” and 72 percent “support the principle of asylum and believe that people should be able to take refuge in other countries, including Italy.” However, 57 percent  also feel the overall impact of immigration has been negative, and only 18 percent view it as positive. 

These negative views come from a variety of factors, according to the survey. There are economic concerns, with Italy’s unemployment issues, that migrants take Italian jobs and suppress wages. But there are also cultural concerns.  “Traditional cultural identity is important to Italians, and a majority are concerned that their identity is disappearing. Half of the Italian population report that they sometimes feel like a stranger in their own country. An even larger number (59 percent) believe that Italian identity is disappearing (only 22 percent disagree).”  

There is some reason behind a desire for a more homogenous culture. “‘Social capital’ is an umbrella term that includes many important aspects of social interaction that together allow societies to work effectively, including interpersonal relationships, a shared sense of cultural heritage, a shared understanding, shared norms, shared values, trust, cooperation and reciprocity.” High social capital correlates with health, longer lifespans, economic growth, welfare services, lower crime rates, and other signs of a prosperous society. This study on social capital actually showed that behavior can take several generations to change, even when migrating to a new environment, and so negative experiences and statuses can last to impact generations of migrant families. Further, the desire for a unified culture can serve to emphasize differences and force migrants to erase their own cultures. 

Experience of Immigrants & Expectations of Conformity

With these concerns of cultural identities, as well as economic concerns and unemployment, immigrants become the negative other that can serve as a scapegoat to these problems. Their differences become a point of contention instead of something appreciated. This is the issue of cultural distance, the difference between the culture of the collective, and the culture of the individual. Italians have an expectation for foreigners to close the cultural distance and integrate with the dominant culture. This expectation is not just a perception, but a policy. Any foreign national staying in Italy for longer than one year must agree to a certain level of integration, including knowledge of the language and Italian life. 

“Italian and Integration Agreement.”

It’s argued that the expectation to conform and integrate comes from the fear of otherness, and is even “a form of enemy control, submission, and subjection.” While integration may sound neutral, there are negative implications in the expectation of the migrant to adapt, as if their own culture makes them flawed in relation to their Italianity. Luís Fernando Beneduzi explains it best in his article:

“In this process, there is no concern with what the immigrant contributes to the collectivity that receives him, the cultural and social enrichment that is the result of the immigration phenomenon; the subversive potential of these individuals is a matter of concern and this generates fear, the possibility that they will undermine the social fabric. … To the extent that he divests from himself, the immigrant can be accepted, even if in an always subordinate way, but less threatening, in the collectivity that welcomes him: he softens the threatening image that characterizes him, because he is going through a civilizing process.” 

“Fear, intolerance, resignation: some readings on contemporary immigration in Italy,” 

These expectations come with a burden. To immigrants, there is a message that they are not welcome as they are. And, naturally, the expectations tend toward racism. The life and well-being of immigrants in Italy varies greatly depending on demographics and other variables—age, legal status, country of origin, economic status. Those from farther countries like China, the Philippines, and Nigeria are more culturally distant than those from European countries like Germany and France, putting more of that burden on those immigrants to adapt themselves to fit into the dominant culture. Those with Italian heritage from other European countries actually had a similar cultural distance to the distance between north and south Italy, for example, making it much easier for them to adapt to the Italian “norm.”

In response to racist and nationalist ideas, there have also been protests on the side of immigration and anti-racism.

“Stop the fascism and racism, stop playing with the migrants’ lives.” Anti-racism demonstration in Macerata, 2018.

Some push for inclusion as opposed to integration. “The idea of inclusion – which presupposes inserting a person into a community, without de-characterizing her/him – could be a better response to the immigration phenomenon, especially considering that integration, in addition to becoming a process of erasing the other, does not produce the effects of full acceptance and recognition within the community where the immigrant settles.” Through inclusion, they could accept immigrants as they are and value the cultural differences rather than see them as a deficit. While this is a valuable goal, a big obstacle is the current perception of migrants as a whole.

Moving Forward

While the majority of Italians don’t agree with extreme nationalist ideas, feelings about migrants are still generally less than warm, according to a survey of attitudes. While there are still concerns of unemployment and dying culture from the Italian perspective, there are also people forced to shed their identity to integrate with a new one from the migrant perspective. It’s impossible to say how immigration policies may shift in the future, but I’m hopeful that general attitudes toward migrants will continue to evolve and shift toward inclusion and acceptance. I think about my great-grandmother coming to America in hopes of a better life, and about the thousands of refugees seeking the same thing now in Italy.

References

Benedetti, Francesca. “’Italians First’: Anti-immigrant sentiment becomes focus as parties chase undecided voters ahead of country’s election.” Independent, 18 Feb. 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/italy-elections-2018-migrants-berlusconi-italians-first-refugees-deportation-coalition-a8216721.html.

Beneduzi, Luís Fernando. “Fear, intolerance, resignation: some readings on contemporary immigration in Italy.” Tempo & Argumento,  6 Oct. 2021, https://revistas.udesc.br/index.php/tempo/article/view/21751803ne2021e0103. 

De Santis, Gustavo, et al. “So Close, So Far. The Cultural Distance of Foreigners in Italy.” Social Indicators Research, Springer Nature, 10 May 2021, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11205-021-02676-w.

De Santis, Gustavo, et al. “Italians and Foreigners: How Distant Are They, Culturally Speaking?” NIUSSP, Associazione Neodemos, 24 May 2021, https://www.niussp.org/migration-and-foreigners/italians-and-foreigners-how-distant-are-they-culturally-speaking-quelle-divergence-culturelle-entre-italiens-et-etrangers/. 

Dixon, Tim, et al. “Attitudes towards National Identity, Immigration and Refugees in Italy.” More In Common, Aug. 2018, https://www.moreincommon.com/media/3hnhssh5/italy-en-final_digital_2b.pdf.

France-Presse, Agence. “Italy’s migrant crisis saw a huge turning point in 2017.” The World, PRX, 30 Dec. 2017. https://theworld.org/stories/2017-12-30/italys-migrant-crisis-saw-huge-turning-point-2017.

Holliday, Adrian. “Who We Really are as Resourceful and Creative Cultural and Travellers: Combatting Divisive, Blocking Narratives and Finding Threads that Connect Us,” 2019.

Paparusso, Angela. “Immigrants’ Subjective Well-Being in Italy.” Immigrant Integration in Europe. Springer, Cham, 2021. 101-118.

Poggioli, Sylvia. “In Italy, Right-Wing Politicians Set Their Sights On Parliament.” New England Public Radio, PBS, 8 Nov. 2017, https://www.nepm.org/post/italy-right-wing-politicians-set-their-sights-parliament#stream/0.

Reuters Staff. “Number of migrants landing in Italy more than doubles in past year.” Reuters, 15 Aug. 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-italy-migrants-minister/number-of-migrants-landing-in-italy-more-than-doubles-in-past-year-idUSKCN25B0SO.

Sgroi, Daniel, et al. “Cultural Identity and Social Capital in Italy.” IZA Institute of Labor Economics, no. 13783, Oct. 2020. Discussion Paper Series, https://doi.org/https://ftp.iza.org/dp13783.pdf. 

Villa, Matteo. “Italy’s post-fact immigration debate.” Politico, 27 June 2018. https://www.politico.eu/article/italy-immigration-debate-facts-dont-matter.

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