Italy’s real migration problem

It isn’t just people coming to Italy. It’s also people leaving.

Nobody knows how many North African refugees will manage to make it safely to Italy in the coming weeks – some reports say there are thousands waiting to attempt the dangerous Mediterranean crossing, which has claimed hundreds of lives in a series of maritime disasters. But what is clear is that very few of the ones who do make it to Italy will stay there.

After more than 20 years of little or no economic growth here, immigrants and Italians alike are leaving the country in droves, often heading to other European nations where they may or may not be welcome.

“Many of us are leaving,” says Sorower Ahmed, 38, a Bangladeshi who runs a service shop for immigrants in the far east side of Milan. “As soon as they get a permanent visa they go to the UK, France, Sweden, Germany. Me too. I’m thinking of going to Paris.” Like many immigrants and Italians alike, Sorower’s business has been hit hard by the economic crisis. “I have lost customers because of this reason, because those who can, go away. My monthly turnover has seen a 25 percent drop.”

Just down the street, his competitor, Egyptian Mohamed Hassan, 42, confirms the perception that his customers are leaving but his activity has been even more severely damaged. “In the last five years business has halved and the last two years have been even worse.”

During the economic boom of the 1960s and 1970s Italy grew at a Chinese pace, then slowed to a German one, and since the 1990s has averaged only around 1 percent growth per year. So, unlike Spain, which rode a boom before the current economic crisis hit, Italy had already been suffering from almost 15 years of slow growth. The tough times here have made Italy more of a stopover than a final destination for many immigrants.

“Italy is a corridor, especially for Syrians and Eritreans, while those coming from sub-Saharan countries are more inclined to stay often because they lack economic resources or family networks,” says Oliviero Forti, responsible for immigration at Caritas, the Catholic Church’s aid agency.

It’s not just newly arrived immigrants who are leaving the land of La Dolce Vita. In 2014, 48,000 immigrants left, but so did 91,000 Italians, a 10 percent increase on the previous year. The numbers are considered conservative because many don’t tell authorities they have left.

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