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The synecdoche effect in immigration tales
Eleonora di Molfetta
Few months from the next Italian general election, to be held in March 2018, immigration is back as hot topic in Italian political agenda and media coverage. It is not surprising that each running candidate would have brought issues on immigration, citizenship and security to the forefront of his political agendas. Indeed, according to the latest political polls, 71.9% of the population will consider candidates’ position on immigration before choosing to whom vote for. Sadly, Italian political agendas on immigration are speaking with one distinct voice: less immigration, more security.
The link between immigration and security is not new and neither an Italian exceptionalism. Rather, whilst with some variations due to differences in local contexts, immigration has often been framed as a problem of national security (Bigo, 2002). In the Italian landscape emphasis is from time to time placed on three recurring topics. The first topic is the threat posed by those who disembark on Italian coasts seeking protection; the second concerns the presence of ‘criminal’ immigrants on the state territory, by ‘criminals’ meaning those without a residence permit; the third is the governments’ inability to deal with immigration flows, often referring to the European Union’s disregard towards Italy, left alone in dealing with the current situation. As such, when it comes to the political agenda, each candidate knows the arguments that must be used to please his voters.
Nevertheless, the immigration tales that we read and hear across media and political debate are only a small part of the whole story. The often so-called ‘invasion’ of immigrants, who cross the Mediterranean with great dangers and risks in a desperate attempt to find safety on the Italian shores, is a sad chapter in our current history. Yet, it is one chapter of the story. The same is true for irregular immigrants, who represent an small percentage compared to other categories of immigrants. Thus, picturing immigration by only looking at those immigrants arriving in Italy to seek humanitarian protection or those immigrants living in the territory irregularly fails to do justice to the complexity and different manifestations of current immigration flows. It is with these premises in mind that the latest Dossier Statistico Immigrazione 2017, a dossier that collect and analyse statistics on immigration, aims at unravelling the mottled and complex story of immigration in Italy.
Picturing immigration by only looking at those immigrants arriving in Italy to seek humanitarian protection or those immigrants living in the territory irregularly fails to do justice to the complexity and different manifestations of current immigration flows.
Whereas statistics are not perfect, they can help bring the ‘more hidden’ immigration tales to light, the ones on which less attention is placed. With one clarification: data concerning irregular immigration might be underestimated due to the large dark number affecting official statistics. In other words, it is not possible to estimate with accuracy the numbers of immigrants residing irregularly in Italy. According to the Dossier mentioned, immigrants in Italy count for 8.3% of the total population which is not in line with the common idea of an invasion. By including the estimated number of irregular immigrants, with the caution mentioned earlier, the number goes up to 9%. Thus, while irregular immigrants, often referred to as ‘clandestini’ (a negatively loaded term used to indicate immigrants without a valid residence permit) are the most prominent subjects in media coverage and political debate, the great majority of immigrants in Italy hold a residence permit.
It must be noted that 30.5% of immigrants living in Italy are Europeans, and as such they do not need to apply for a residence permit to stay in the country. The remaining number of non-European immigrants comes from Central and Eastern Europe, followed by Africa and Asia. The Dossier provides also insights into the reasons upon which non-European immigrants ask for a residence permit in Italy. Residence permits obtained for humanitarian protection account for 9% of the total, whereas 41.1% were granted for working-related reasons and 44.3% for family reunification. Surprisingly, little attention is often paid to the largest group of immigrants, those residing in Italy with a residence permit for family reunification. Immigrants who wish to reunite their family in Italy must hold a valid residence permit, a job and a house – these are the requirements to be fulfilled for family reunification. In other terms, this group encompasses the majority of immigrants who live, work and study in Italy.
Yet, stories of family reunification are not part of the immigration tales we read every day. Because of this hyper-focus on controlling borders, reducing immigration flows and ensuring national security, Italian government has neglected –one simply needs to look at the recent failure to approve the citizenship reform – to take into account the largest number of immigrants in Italy who struggle to fully integrate into society. While it is not my wish to divert attention from certain ‘chapters’ of immigration, such as the situation in the Mediterranean, the shortages in the Dublin Convention and the problem of irregular immigration, it is my believe that Italy, but not Italy alone, is failing to take into account the multiple dimensions in immigration. This is the ‘synecdoche effect’ in immigration tales I referred earlier: some dimensions or chapters of immigration are deemed to be the whole phenomenon or story.
Because of this hyper-focus on controlling borders, reducing immigration flows and ensuring national security, Italian government has neglected to take into account the largest number of immigrants in Italy who struggle to fully integrate into society.
The numbers above reported warn us against disregarding other pressing issues and challenges surrounding immigration. With the increase of episodes of violence and discrimination in Italy, it is alarming that political agendas have neglected to address the problem of integration of immigrants in a country that is rapidly changing its cultural makeup. The path towards integration is not a unilateral course, but it must come from both sides. Thence, integration should be brought back to the forefront of current political agendas as an important chapter of the whole immigration tales. As the Dossier recently remembered to its readers, focusing our attention on the newcomers cannot mean to forget those who already settled in Italy.