WASHINGTON – Compared to the chaos caused by floods of Syrian refugees trying to find shelter in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, the numbers of poor Africans, Arabs, Afghans, Syrians, and Kurds landing in Italy do not look so alarming. Syria’s neighbors are facing literally millions of immigrants; Italy is getting tens of thousands.
Almost 90,000 this year
And if we place this influx in context, the numbers do not look that bad. Italy has a population of 61 million. in 2014 the official figures indicate that it welcomed about 60,000 refugees. In 2015 the numbers are higher (plus 40%). But we are still under 90,000. Therefore many observers can conclude that, while welcoming all these refugees is an issue, it is not a crisis.
Of course it is not a crisis. But it would be disingenuous to look at this year’s numbers out of context.
The fact is that tens of thousands of poor, illiterate, unskilled immigrants keep coming every year into Italy, a country facing serious economic problems, with very limited resources. Italy can offer very little in terms of jobs, meaningful training and education to these refugees.
Besides, Italy’s population is slowly shrinking, while the numbers of elderly Italians in need of medical and social services keep growing. Indeed, Italy’s fertility rate, at 1.42 children per woman, is one of the lowest in the world. (Italy is number 204 out of 224). More than 21% of the Italian population is over 65. (And do keep in mind that the fertility rate looks a bit better on account of recent immigrants who tend to have more children than the native population). Besides, Italy has a very weak economy (growing now at less than 1%) with high unemployment (about 12.5%). This means no new jobs. Given these trends, the weight of recent immigrants who compete for already strained social services in a country in serious economic trouble becomes much more significant.
As I said, this is not a refugee crisis. But it is a progressive demographic transformation of the country, with mostly negative socio-economic consequences. Tens of thousands of refugees, year after year, soon enough become millions. And these are millions of people who cannot easily blend in. And this is the real problem.
In theory, adding immigrants to a country with a declining population can be a good thing. Yes, of course, provided that these immigrants have a modicum of education, (ideally a great education with marketable skills), and speak fluently the local language, so that they can be easily employed in growth sectors of the economy. (Think of the Indian computer scientists armed with Ph.Ds who start successful IT companies in Silicon Valley).
Immigrants do not add to the economy
Unfortunately, this is not the case when we look at the bulk of immigrants getting into Europe. (This is not just about Italy. Greece, Hungary, Spain, France, and other countries are facing the same problem).
These are mostly unskilled, illiterate and desperate people escaping from poverty and wars. They go to Europe with the founded expectation of finding shelter, food, and some medical care. If you just escaped from war-torn Syria, getting to Sicily is like landing in paradise.
Refugee problem will get worse
Clearly for Italy this steady influx of people seeking benefits rather than jobs (that are hard to find anyway) is a big problem that is bound to get progressively bigger as time goes by. This steady inflow from North Africa and the Middle East is essentially unstoppable. And these hundreds of thousands, soon to be millions, of refugees are not adding to the already low quality pool of human capital.
As a result, hard to believe that Italy and the other EU countries will benefit from this kind of immigration.