In many cases, migrants sustain entire economic sectors in Italy, particularly in low-skilled and labour-based jobs such as agriculture, caring for the elderly and building work
Italian immigrants flourish despite negative reception
When Suleman Diara arrived in Italy on a migrant boat from Libya in 2008, he thought it would be easy to find a job.
“My dream was to get to Italy, make enough money for a plough and some cattle, and go back to my family, who are in Mali,” he tells The National. “I felt I’d have no problem getting a job.”
The reality, he found, was very different. Lacking skills and unable to speak Italian, Mr Diara, like many other African migrants, ended up toiling in fields in the south of the country, in conditions which have been described as exploitative by human rights groups. “It’s like a form of modern slavery,” his friend and partner Mauro Ventura says. “They were picking fruit in back-breaking labour, and receiving just €20 [Dh90] in an entire day.”
In 2010, violent race riots broke out in the southern town of Rosarno triggered by the shooting of two African migrant workers by a local gang. The authorities responded by swiftly removing more than 1,000 migrant workers from the area, including Mr Diara, and sending them to other towns and cities across Italy.
“In a strange way, the revolution in Rosarno ended up being my fortune, as it took me to Rome,” the 33-year-old says.
He and his friends from Africa found themselves homeless in the capital, squatting in abandoned buildings and sleeping on the floor of Termini train station. With few other options, they decided to start producing organic yoghurt and selling it into local markets and social centres. “We chose to make yoghurt as it was easy for us. We knew how to do it from back home in Mali,” Mr Diara says.
An Italian charity worker lent the group €30 to help get their project, called Barikama, off the ground. At the start, they sold just 15 litres of yoghurt a week, but as the product became more popular, their business grew.
Now seven years on, they are selling over 400 litres of yoghurt a week, which they deliver by bicycle door-to-door across the city. They also produce vegetables on their biological garden, which is based on a farm on the outskirts of Rome, and sell them to shops and markets.
“At the start, Italians didn’t trust us because we had come from Africa, and there was prejudice towards us. People didn’t like us because of our skin colour,” Mr Diara says. “But now, our product is very well known and liked.”
Barikama is a word in Bambara, a native language of Mali, meaning resistance and resilience. “It is a combination of both words, because that was what we’d experienced in getting to Italy and surviving here,” Mr Diara says.
The Barikama team consists of 12 people, six of whom are full-time and another six trainees from countries including Somalia, Senegal and Mali. The goal is to provide an alternative to the hardship and exploitation that migrants experience when working in agriculture. The company also wants to help other disadvantaged communities in Italy, such as disabled people, achieve social inclusion and economic independence. Some of the work placements it offers are specially for Italians with Asperger’s syndrome.
Mr Diara has learnt to speak Italian and says he feels like Rome is now his home. However, he still hopes to return to Mali one day. “That’s still my dream and objective.”
Barikama’s green business approach to farming has won it praise from environmental experts. In 2014, it was one of the companies invited to speak at an event on sustainable farming, hosted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.
However, despite success stories like Barikama, public opinion towards immigrants in Italy has turned increasingly negative as more and more people have arrived on its shores.
Anti-migrant sentiment dominated campaigning in the run-up to last Sunday’s general election, with politicians blaming each other for the failure to stem the flow of some 625,000 migrants from Africa and the Middle East into Italy over the past four years.
Violence towards immigrants culminated in a shooting spree last month against six Africans in the central Italian town of Macerata, at the hand of a far-right activist.
Former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, who led a coalition of right-wing parties into Sunday’s election, reacted to the incident by claiming migrants who arrived illegally in Italy are “ready” to commit crimes. He and his allies vowed mass deportations if they came into power. While the election ended in a hung parliament, the right-wing coalition won more votes than any other faction, indicating the strength of anti-migrant feeling in Italy.
The other main parties also capitalised on public hostility to immigration by promising a tough line on newcomers.
But experts have warned that this rhetoric overlooks a number of positive economic implications of immigration into Italy.
“The public debate, especially in Italy, usually considers migration as a ‘problem’, basically linked to security, crimes, illegality,” Enrico Di Pasquale, researcher by Fondazione Leone Moressa, tells The National. “But migration in Italy represents now [like in the other main European countries] a big and permanent part of the society and of the economic system.”
Mr Di Pasquale notes that foreign workers in Italy contribute €131 billion in added value to the national wealth, or 9% of gross domestic product. They also pay direct taxes of €7.2bn and social security contributions of €11.5bn.
Immigration also helps to balance the problem of Italy’s fast ageing population.
“The Italian population is ageing rapidly, and has been shrinking marginally since 2015,” Peter Ceretti, Italy analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, told The National. “Almost 23 per cent of Italians are over 65. This leads to sustainability challenges in terms of public expenditure on pensions, health care and long-term care.
“Immigration, and higher fertility rates among immigrant families, are helping to keep these trends from accelerating and may be the only hope for reversing negative population growth over the near term.”
In many cases, immigrants sustain entire economic sectors in Italy, particularly in low-skilled and labour-based jobs such as agriculture, caring for the elderly and building work. These are necessary jobs but are often viewed as unattractive by native Italians.
Raffaele Maiorano, president of young farmers at the General Confederation of Italian Agriculture (Confagricoltura), says that migrants play a critical role in supporting the country’s agricultural business.
“Twenty-eight per cent of rural labourers in Italy are immigrants,” he tells The National. “That’s more than double the percentage in most other sectors. We need workers from outside of Italy. Italian people don’t want to get their hands dirty, and the cost of labour in Italy is also very high.”
Barikama won a €50,000 grant from Confagricoltura last year. Mr Maiorano describes the project as an example of the positive economic contribution that migrants can make.
“A lot of politicians are exploiting the immigration issue, and trying to make it seem like a bigger problem than it is,” he says. “In reality, 90 per cent of immigrants that work in agriculture have the correct documents, are here legally, and support the economy.”
Mr Maiorano says that the key is to properly integrate immigrants into all aspects of Italian life. “We accept immigrants and we want them in Italy, but we want them to be regulated, skilled and integrated,” he says. “That’s what we try and do at Confagricoltura. We integrate them, and give them professional training. Barikama is a good example of this.”
Outside of agriculture, a relatively high proportion of immigrants in Italy are self-employed or own businesses in industries such as food services, construction and small-scale retail sales.
Several organisations in Italy have been set up to actively promote migrants who aspire to set up their own businesses.
CNA World is one such organisation. Founded in 2009, it aims to represent the rights of migrant entrepreneurs in the province of Rome, as well as to provide educational and information services.
About 1,000 immigrant businessmen in Rome are part of the association, which falls under the National Confederation of Craftsmanship and Small Enterprise. Most of them operate in the commercial sector, manufacturing and construction.
Its honorary president, Indra Perera, is himself from Sri Lanka but has lived in Italy since 1990. “Any foreigner who wants to start a business in Italy can come to us,” he tells The National. “If the proposal is sound, we will support them. Over 70 different countries are represented in this association.”
Mr Perera says the fact that almost a tenth of Italian GDP comes from foreign workers in itself shows their important contribution to the country’s economy.
Businesses set up by migrant entrepreneurs often also bring employment for native Italians. “Forty thousand Italians are working in companies set up by foreigners, so you can see they are creating jobs for local people,” he says.
Compared to other EU states, a disproportionately high percentage of Italians leave the country to pursue job opportunities elsewhere. The influx of immigrants, therefore, helps to mitigate that drain of skills and labour, says Valentin Fagarasian, the current president of CNA World.
Originally Romanian, and an engineer by background, Mr Fagarasian runs a successful business focusing on construction and restoration building work in Rome. His company has also branched out into other areas, such as consultancy and, most recently, pasta-making. Most of his 120 workers are from Romania, but 22 are also native Italians.
“Politicians are misusing the immigration theme – there are areas like rural or menial work, where foreign labour is really needed,” he says. “This country needs immigrants for the future.”
Gustavo Piga, professor of economics at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, acknowledges that immigration and crime can be an issue. He also argues that Italy is bearing too much of the burden when it comes to taking in migrants. “There are challenges, indeed. No one is denying that,” he says.
But he adds that Italy also needs youthful migrant workers to support its economy, so in that sense, immigration should be seen as a positive force.
“Now that the elections are over, Italian people need to take a step back and face up to the fact that this is a country that’s getting old, and that its economy needs fresh energy,” he says.
“During every election, immigration of course becomes a populist argument.
“But now, hopefully the country can move on from those tensions and focus on a more positive message.”