WASHINGTON – Regarding the constant flow of illegal immigrants from North Africa into Italy and to a lesser degree Spain, the main media focus is on the all too frequent tragedies at sea. Old and overcrowded vessels sometimes do not make it. Sadly, lots of people drown.
Tragedies at sea
Italian media have almost daily reports about the heroic deeds of the Italian Coast Guard and/or the Italian Navy. While patrolling the seas, they spot shipwrecked people and often save lives. The survivors are brought to shore.
That said, the larger issue here is that, tragedies notwithstanding, there is no policy to stem or reverse the flow of these desperate would-be immigrants. More of them, one way or the other, manage to get to Italy. A little more than 100,000 landed just this year, including 14,600 minors and 8,600 unaccompanied children.
A constant inflow
Now, this is not a tidal wave. But it is a constant stream of poor, in most cases illiterate, immigrants who create additional burdens for already over extended social and health care services.
Of course, If we looked at the impact of this immigration on the European Union as a whole, it would not be so great. The EU is made out of 28 countries, with more than 500 million inhabitants. Surely a relatively large Continent could make room for a few hundreds of thousands arriving from North Africa every year.
But the fact is that, in practice, there is no real Europe-wide policy aimed at absorbing illegal immigrants from North and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Immigrants become the problem of the host country
Whatever the existing EU programs, the hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants getting in, year after year, de facto become the problem of the countries welcoming them. The Africans landing in Sicily are not going to eventually settle in Denmark or Ireland. Most of them will stay right there, in Italy.
In the case of Italy, there is the issue of the significant cost of patrolling the coastal waters, rescuing people at sea, placing them in some sort of livable accommodations, feeding them and caring for them. This is truly burdensome for a country with a disastrous national debt, (around 130% of GDP), and a semi-comatose, zero-growth economy.
Not a temporary phenomenon
That said, beyond the immediate costs, one should look at the long-term impact of all these immigrants from Maghreb and other African countries.
For starters, let’s understand that this is not a temporary phenomenon. Tens of thousands of semi-desperate people will continue to arrive, every month, driven mostly by extreme poverty but also by endemic conflcits.
Indeed, unless the economic circumstances in their countries of origin improve dramatically –and this is practically impossible– the drive to emigrate and look for a better life in Europe will continue.
Case in point, now there is a civil war in post-Gaddafi Libya. This chaos creates an additional incentive for more people to leave. If Libya were at peace, if there would be investments, economic growth and demand for labor, then the poor Libyans would probably stay at home. But this is not the case; and so they emigrate, trying to sail into Italy on overcrowded vessels.
Long term impact
This slow but constant migration is already changing Italy’s demography. Assuming no reversal, in a few years the changes will be more and more visible. And, unfortunately, these are not good changes.
These immigrants are by definition needy. They do not bring much intellectual capital in the shape of valuable skills. These are not doctors, engineers or architects. These are mostly illiterate people who do not speak Italian. And, even if they could get jobs, please consider that Italy has a 12% unemployment rate. Youth unemployment reaches 60% in the South. Where are the jobs for these immigrants, even assuming that they were qualified?
On top of that, most of them are Muslim, and this adds another layer of complexity. Very hard to assimilate people of different races, with minimal or non existent education, and a different religion.
A new demographic make-up
Everything else being equal, considering an extremely low –below replacement level– fertility level among the native Italians, 20 years from now there will be areas of Italy completely dominated by the recent immigrants who tend to have many more children.
Again, nothing wrong with that in principle. The problem is that it would take a real optimist to assume that these hundreds of thousands –and in the end millions– of poor immigrants will quickly adjust, get a good education, and become productive workers and tax payers who will end up enriching Italy.
Poor Italy will become poorer
Most of them are likely to live at the margin of the society hosting them, requiring help, health care and other costly social services.
Sadly, an already semi-impoverished Italy will do even worse because of all these additional costs, not to mention the predictable political reactions to all this immigration in the shape of more, and possibly violent, xenophobic, anti-foreigners movements.