Immigration: A Weapon for Politicization by Italian Parties?

Article by Yagmur T.

(8 mins read).

Public opinion on migration in Italy is shaped mainly by two groups: open segments, those who consider migration as a humanitarian duty and fully support migration, and closed segments, those who consider it as a threat to Italian culture, economy, and security and are strongly against it. However, there is also a third group that is less ambitious in this discussion and has more vague and flexible viewpoints.

Based on the research conducted in December 2019, most Italians perceive migration as a problem. However, many people see migration as both a problem and an opportunity in equal measures. Also, most Italians believe that migrants have a positive impact on society in general; for instance, they tend to fill up jobs which prove to be difficult finding workers.

It is important to note that many politicians consider the topic of migration in the light of some electoral calculations. Especially the far-right populist parties who use migrants as a political tool to gain supporters. They campaign on an anti-migration agenda and fears about migration are being used to create a “we versus them” scenario.  The domestic socio-economic crisis and also the jihadist terrorist attacks made it easier for many politicians to “legitimize” their anti-migration discourses and policies. According to this narrative, the more money the government spends on asylum seekers, the less money it spends on helping unemployed Italians, and the more African (and possibly Muslim) migrants enter into Italy, the greater the risk to Italian security. This misleading picture has developed to the point where over half of the population believes immigrants pose a threat to public order which eventually leads to creating consensus on a stricter immigration policy.

Migration is linked to plenty of other issues rather than only being about the lives of Italians and also newcomers. For example, many of the system’s flaws are shown by the difficulty of regulating migration flows and the refugee crisis. A lack of coordination and mismanagement not only in Italy, but also all across Europe demonstrated what many would see as a lack of control and sovereignty. In this sense, migration is viewed as a policy area that demonstrates a state’s ability (or inability) to exercise sovereignty through the admission or exclusion of non-citizens which shifts migration from a humanitarian issue to a political issue. Besides, migration is a topic that interacts on issues such as security and identity, religion and terrorism, political correctness, globalization and the economy, and the public’s decreasing trust in governments, institutions, and the media.

The perception of migrants is also connected to insecurities about national identity. As group identities influence people’s attitudes and actions, differences in attitudes about national identity (and the value placed on it) among the people are important for migration debates because migration is used to redefine “us” and “the other”. When migrants are viewed through this perspective, concerns about the strength of one’s national identity grow. It becomes a topic that represents worries of losing traditions as well as culture. Many Italians, on the other hand, have a range of perspectives that are more flexible, ambiguous, and sometimes contradictory. Most people, for example, agree with the moral obligation of accepting migrants, while also being concerned that the majority of those attempting to enter Europe as refugees are not genuine refugees. This group of people is less ideological and less engaged in the issue of migration in Italy.

Also, research shows that Italians do not feel pressure to speak and think a certain way on migration issues unlike countries like Germany, and when they do express their views, they are likely to voice positive attitudes that are more aligned with the views of the Italian open segments. However, the views of the most open and closed groups are more often expressed in social and traditional media than those individuals with less strong opinions. They have a significant impact on public debate, giving the misleading impression that their viewpoints are shared by the majority of the population.

Furthermore, even though most Italians are aware of the difference between migrants and refugees, they tend to consider both as “the other”.  This can be explained by the” us versus them” discourse that the right-wing populist politicians produce. This is why people are more likely to perceive situations through the perspective of an “in-group” that is under attack by hostile “out-groups”. Xenophobic populists intensify group identities by promoting polarizing narratives centered on a conflict between the interests of nationals (“us”) and those of migrants (“them”). This public debate on migration is continuing not only in Italy, but also in other European countries such as Spain, Germany, France, and Hungary.

In conclusion, debates on immigration are rarely only about migration itself. In periods of great economic inequality and fast change, far-right authoritarian populist parties take advantage of insecurities about culture and identity. As a result, attention is being drawn to the issue of migration as a political problem, rather than perceiving it as the struggle of people who crossed dangerous seas for a better future, mostly without knowing the host countries’ language and trying to adapt to life in the new country.

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