Integration remains biggest challenge for immigrants in Italy

For some there is no future in Italy, but for many going home is not an option

Immigrants hold a placard reading “Instead of giving citizenship to the dead, give it to the living!!” on October 18th, 2013 in Rome during a demonstration. Photograph: ALberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

Immigrants hold a placard reading “Instead of giving citizenship to the dead, give it to the living!!” on October 18th, 2013 in Rome during a demonstration. Photograph: ALberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images


“Maria” smiles when she recalls “migrating” to Italy more than 10 years ago. Now classified as a “transnational migrant”, in that she maintains cultural and economic ties to both Romania and Italy, Maria is typical of many of the one million-plus Romanians who now live and work in Italy.

While it is obvious that the Italian state has huge difficulties, both infrastructural and political, in dealing with often clandestine immigration, Maria’s story is a reminder that thousands of Italians have extended a welcoming hand to the new arrivals.

Married with one child, whom she left with relatives in Romania, Maria originally migrated in order to pay back a bank debt incurred to “fix up the house”.

Having arrived clandestinely by a private bus service, she found work thanks to a Romanian friend as live-in “help” for an elderly couple, both 95 years old, in Benevento, Campania.

For the first three weeks, the couple’s son and daughter-in- law stayed with them to oversee Maria and to help out, given she initially spoke no Italian.

“They were very sweet to me. My birthday is on June 4th and that came just one week after I had been with them. It fell on a Sunday and I went out. When I came back that evening, she [the woman of the house] had made a cake for me with my name on it and with birthday wishes from all of them with their names written on it too.”

Long-term focus
This might make it seem that Maria was already well on the way to integration into Italian society. Yet, even though she still keeps in contact with the family in Benevento, whose employment she has long since left, she continues to move between two countries, often for seasonal farm work. Romania remains her long-term focus, the place where she owns a house and where her child lives.

By far the largest component in the almost 4.5 million foreign nationals registered in Italy – more than 7 per cent of the Italian population – the Romanian community illustrates one of the most dramatic aspects of Italy’s immigration phenomenon, namely the lack of integration.

Although many young Romanians have equal or better educational qualifications than their Italian counterparts, more than 60 per cent work, often in the black economy, as “home helps”; manual labourers in the building and agricultural sectors; and in the hotel, restaurant or bar industries.

After 20 years and more of regular immigration crises, moving from Albanians to Romanians to Arab Spring north Africans and most recently to Syrians, there is very little sign of any upward mobility among immigrants or their children.

It is estimated that between 1.5 and two million immigrants are domestic workers in Italy, prompting sociologist Adrian Favell to warn of the danger of them being converted into “a new Victorian servant class”.

The immigrant’s profile is that of one who might find poorly-paid work in a restaurant, bar or hotel but who is destined to serve tables or wash dishes, but almost never to handle the till or manage the enterprise. A black taxi driver, a Lithuanian on the supermarket cash desk, a Romanian bus driver or a Polish hotel manager are almost unknown.

Poverty threshold
Immigrazione Caritas estimates the average annual income of a Romanian migrant family in Italy is €15,000 or less, with 50 per cent of Romanian families living on the poverty threshold. The lack of integration means that many immigrant groups – Chinese textile workers in Tuscany, African fruit harvest workers in Calabria – live in slum-like conditions on the margins of Italian society.

The status of many African migrants is best summed up by the denigratory Italian term vu’compra, literally “wanna- buy”. This is because many – Nigerians, Ivorians, Moroccans, Senegalese, etc – find precarious employment as walking salespeople, offering trinkets but, in reality, begging.

All the immigrant groups suffer a level of racial discrimination. For nine of the last 20 years, the xenophobic Northern League has been a senior partner in Silvio Berlusconi-led centre-right governments, doing little for the cause of integration.

No future
Many migrants are like Maria in that they see no future for themselves in Italy. Most of the Syrian boat people, for example, simply want to pass through to northern Europe. However, there are still some two million African, Asian and Latin American immigrants for whom going home or moving on is simply not an option.

For them, integration is crucial and nothing is more critical than the acquisition of Italian language skills by the 800,000 immigrant children who now attend Italian schools.

However there is no formal state recognition of the role of the teacher of Italian as a second language. Not surprisingly, all available studies indicate that a majority of immigrant children perform badly at school. All of which would explain why, for someone like Maria and her son, the future is not in Italy.

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