The ‘Migration Crisis’ in Italy: a Crisis of Identity?

Maria Paola Pofi

My PhD research project aims at investigating the phenomena of human mobility (migration) and mediated mobility (mediation) across national borders through a study of migrant transnational lives in Italy. In particular, placing the research within the context of the ‘migration crisis’ – and the conflicts over cultural diversity it triggered – has led me to deepen the reasons, nature, and consequences of labelling a social phenomenon as an emergency. In this short contribution, I’m going to propose a reading of the ‘migration crisis’ in Italy as a crisis of identity.

Italy has had a key role in the so-called Crisis in the Mediterranean due to the centrality acquired by the Sicilian island of Lampedusa and the south-Italian coasts as points of landing of flows from North Africa. The first symptoms of the crisis emerged in 2011 when, as a consequence of the Arab Spring and the Libyan Civil war, it was registered a sharp rise in departures towards Europe. Since the beginning of the crisis, political and media discourses have been overall dominated by narratives that constructed the new arrivals as a threat to Italian culture, a security menace, and an economic burden. Disembarkations, framed as an invasion, of African or Arab migrants, with different social values and economically disadvantaged backgrounds, have destabilised the cohesion of the country. Specific foreign communities have been politically categorised as the main reason behind all the country’s ills, creating fertile ground for xenophobic populist reactions. The political and social response demonstrates how the crisis was not so much linked to the number of arrivals but conversely to their origin, and therefore it is within broader conflicts around ethno-cultural differences that it needs to be analysed. Indeed, even though after the peak registered in 2016 sea arrivals progressively decreased, immigration still represents a predominant theme in Italian political, media and public debates.

What we are witnessing – in Italy and elsewhere – is a return of the politics of fear, mainly promoted by nationalist fair-right parties that base their strengths on the exclusion of the Other to redefine an imaginary definition of the nation as a homogeneous cultural community. While resurgent forms of ethno-nationalism may be seen as a reactionary response to phenomena of globalisation, dislocation, and fragmentation; in Italy, it can also be related to the history of nation-making and the complex process of national identity construction.

Italy has always struggled with conflicting visions of its identity due to regional particularities. Since its unification (1861), the country had to deal with the need to homogenise all the areas and populations that were aggregated from an administrative point of view, despite historical, geographical, and cultural differences. The fragmented structure of the country, and the deep rift between the north and the south in particular, represented the major obstacle to the formation of an Italian collective identity. The famous expression of the nationalist Massimo D’Azeglioin the aftermath of the unification “We have made Italy, now we must make Italians” well represents the constructed ideal of Italian-ness. Beyond failed attempts to nationalise Italians through the erasure of minority languages and cultures (i.e. Fascism), the Northern League is the political party founded in 1991 in a specific attempt to shape an imagined community of northern Italy – Padania – as an alternative to the south. For more than twenty years, the party promoted the northern regions’ secession through discriminatory campaigns against the south and its populations. Only the national and international developments that marked the beginning of the new millennium have gradually modified the Northern League’s ideology and opened up a new way to pursue the national unity taking advantage of the ‘migration crisis’.

Within the development of the crisis, indeed, the new League far-right party, and its leader Matteo Salvini, has gained a key role in defining the terms of the debate under populist slogans such as Italians First, Stop Invasion, Closed Harbours etc. By identifying an external enemy – migration – and no longer an internal one – the south – the League has been able to stand as defender of Italy and Italians and, in so doing, achieve resounding consensus among the electorate. The presence of newcomers in the Italian landscape has therefore represented a significant development for the contemporary imaginary (Bouchard, 2010). The xenophobic discourses and practices that nowadays rekindled the mythology of Italian-ness have been used to redefine the boundaries between the inside and the outside, the native and the foreign, contributing to strengthening the previously weak ideal of national cohesion and pride.

What is missing, within the current debate and future perspective, is that the movement of people and the cultural heterogeneity of the country have historically been, and increasingly are, integral features of the Italian social structure. The concept of “Italian-ness”, as Gramsci reminds us, cannot be separated from phenomena of colonisation, internal and transnational migration that marked the history of the country and its formation (Gramsci, The Southern Question 1966). It seems, however, that national and transnational contexts, connections, and references – and the memory of the Italian diaspora in particular – have not been elaborated by the collective culture. This could help to explain why Italy is considered as a mono-cultural and mono-religious (Caucasian and Catholic) country and why a model of cultural pluralism has not yet been developed. It is only by recognising the past and looking at the future that Italy could find its identity in its transnational character.