Looking at Italian Migration with Dr. Maddalena Tirabassi

Dr Maddalena Tirabassi is a Fulbright scholar, Director of the Centro Altreitalie on Italian Migration, Globus et Locus, and editor of the journal Altreitalie.

A top scholar on Italian migration worldwide, Dr. Tirabassi is currently researching, with Alvise Del Pra’, Italian emigration from 2000 to 2020 and the impact of COVID-19 on the future of Italian emigration. The Altreitalie organisation endeavours to highlight issues relating to Italian migration trends and factors both prior to and after COVID-19, and the effects the pandemic has, and will continue to have, on Italy and its people.

What trends have you identified with regard to Italian migration in the decades leading up to the year 2000 and the new millennium?

As we wrote in a recent piece of research, the introduction of free movement inside the former EC-borders and the Schengen Agreement have played an important role in post-war migrations up to the present days. Meanwhile, the actors of the migration flows have change drastically: from unskilled southern workers moving mainly to northern Europe, to multifaceted mobilities that include highly skilled migrants and movers. Even the motivations have changed: beyond the search for work or better working conditions, important incentives are also the pursuit of quality of life, study, as well as sentimental reasons.

But mobilities are complex, the last few years we dismantled the ‘overqualified migration stereotype’, stressing the economic causes at the core of the new migrations. Today, given the primary relevance of economic factors as the crisis continues, we have found other aspects that show that Italian global mobilities are due to the merging of economic and cultural factors.

 

Which, until now, have been the most common countries chosen for Italian settlement abroad and why?

In 2017 the first countries selected for Italian emigration were the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, France, Spain, Brazil, the United States and Australia. Europe dominates the scene. Ranking is most probably destined to change because of Brexit.

 

Correspondingly, what has been the impact of immigration in Italy over the past 20 years? How has this changed the layout of the cultural and ethnic Italian landscape?

Immigration in Italy is quite recent. It started in the 1970’s. The question on impact is a big one since over 5 million immigrants arrived in just 50 years. I think the biggest visible change happened in the past because of the novelty. In the last 20 years we have had the arrival of members of second generations that, not withstanding the still unresolved problem of them obtaining Italian citizenship, seem to feel at home, thanks to efforts made regarding school integration.

The ‘old’ immigration has entered various sectors of the Italian labor market and is indispensable in many sectors of the Italian economy and society. Up to 2019, the biggest impact on public opinion related to refugees. Public opinion was divided on "accoglienza" (acceptance) and rejection. I’m afraid that now with the COVID-19 emergency the situation will get worse, also because of the exploitation in the farming community. The visibility of immigration depends very much on the different nationalities, and also on gender.

 

The current pandemic, where the first wave of the disease hit Italy particularly hard when it comes to Europe, will no doubt have severely affected the Italian psyche. Will life ever be the same? In your view, what characterises the average Italian citizen post COVID-19?

Actually, I wouldn’t speak of post-COVID. At least in Turin where I have been since February, things are changing very slowly. In the streets you see people wearing masks, the cinema and theatres are still closed, bus, trains and flight seats are more than half empty. The way it has affected people depends very much on economic status. If you lived in a crowded small house or were afraid of losing your job the impact has been very hard. Not to mention the increase in domestic violence.

As is often the case, probably half of the population took the opportunity to slow down and reflect.

 

What do you envisage will be the consequences of the COVID-19 emergency on the future trend of Italian migration? Are Italians expected to stay put where they are, migrating mainly within Italy, or in greater numbers to other countries? (although, as you predict, the imminent Brexit will lead to reduced Italian migration to England). What will be the main push and pull factors?

This is what our enquiry is investigating, but only time and figures will tell. What I think is that in the short run probably people who don’t have a job abroad will stay in Italy also because of the quarantine, but it depends also on the capacity of the Italian economy to recover.

In the near future it will depend even more on the economic situation in Italy.

 

Moving into a hopefully post pandemic future and as we enter a new world order, do you think globalisation is likely to have been negatively impacted by COVID-19?

COVID-19 has blocked people’s mobility, which is one of the characteristics of globalisation, but probably it is only temporary. In either case it has not stopped commerce, which has increased, as has ICT.

 

To what generation does the future belong? Which group or generation has proven the most flexible and resilient during this pandemic?

Unfortunately, this answer is easy: the elderly and the poor have numerically been affected the most, with the due exceptions.

 

Will life somehow change for the better and can Italy and its people, as well as the world at large, learn from this COVID-19 experience?

Hopefully it has shown to all the importance of taking the environment and sustainability very seriously, and inequality as a political and social issue not to be ignored.

  

Will the ‘glocal’ ties between members of the same family unit living in different countries, facilitated by ICT and technological advances, become ever more local in a future of potentially less international travel?

I’m afraid so. I think we have to rethink the lifestyles of transnational families because of the increased time and budget required to travel. Commuting migrations, very frequent in Europe, will need time to get back to the past routine.

 

What, in turn, can young Italians having lived through the very severe COVID-19 experience teach young people in other countries and what will the culture of mobility (‘cultura di mobilità’) look like post pandemic?

I think it has shown the young generations the importance of freedom of movement that many had previously taken for granted.

As per a study you carried out in 2016, how do you imagine the new populist shifts in Europe ̶some of these further exacerbated by COVID ̶will affect the freedom of movement in the near future when it comes to Italian migration?

Lets’ hope the emergency has made people rethink.

Lastly, what specific changes do you see happening after COVID-19 in terms of culture, education, and migration patterns, and how can the negative changes be turned into something positive in the long run?

I hope we learned the lesson about the environment, the need to develop equal social health care and to recognise the importance of investing in research and culture.