Italy: A Story of Migration

The Oxford Dictionary defines migration as the movement of people to a new area or country in order to find work or better living conditions. Migration can be voluntary or involuntary, and it can be because of war, or for political, cultural, environmental and economic reasons. Human history is overwhelmingly a story of migration.

From prehistoric times and right up to today, Italy has been a destination for migrants. Due to its geography and place in the Mediterranean, Italy serves as a land bridge to and from Europe attracting invaders and migrants alike. From 5,300 years ago when Ötzi, the now famous Copper Age glacial mummy crossed Tisenjoch/Giogo di Tisa in the Schnalstal/Val Senales Valley, into South Tyrol, to a historical parade of Indo-Europeans, Etruscans, Greeks, Romans, German tribes, Visigoths, my ancestors – Attila and the Huns, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Lombards, Hungarians, Arabs and the French alike – all migrated to Italy.

Ötzi the Iceman, courtesy of South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology

Migrants throughout the ages have brought with them their culture and customs. These unique attributes have enhanced, enriched and strained relations with local communities.

From a positive and cultural perspective, if we look back over history, we can say that migrants such as the early Greek colonies have been proprietors of Italian culture, helping influence Italian art and architecture with their classical styles. History records another example, the migration of Syrian artisans and craftsmen who helped develop Venetian glass techniques. There are countless records of how various peoples over the ages have helped enrich, advance, and shape the very fabric of Italy. There are also countless historical examples of how migrants have clashed throughout the ages.

An example of a Syrian glass cosmetic bottle in the form of a dromedary with a pack on its back. 8th-9th century.

Today, Italy continues to attract migrants from North Africa, the Middle East, and from Western European nations that are suffering economically and as in the past they are leaving their mark on Italy as they integrate into major cities, with their own food, music, religion and artwork.

According to The Economist, this year alone, Italy has absorbed an overwhelmingly large number of migrants arriving in Italy by sea, over 17% more than in 2016, totaling 93,335. Unlike in 2015, when Syrians fled from war and persecution, these migrants are arriving on Italy’s shores for economic reasons.

Italian officers rescue a woman from a crowded wooden boat. Courtesy of BBC

They come primarily from Bangladesh and Nigeria and are undocumented, presenting Italy with a tremendous humanitarian burden. Carlotta Sami of UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, who is quoted in The Economist article estimates that more than 170,000 migrants are in Italian reception centers or are being housed by local authorities. Even from this year’s April map of migrant flows to Europe below – we can see that Italy is overwhelmed in comparison to the rest of Europe.

Migration Flows to Europe, April 2017; Courtesy of the International Organization for Migration and the UN Migration Agency

To say that these are incredibly difficult times for migrants and local Italians is an understatement. While Italy needs migrants to bolster its declining birthrate, this country with a big heart needs help from the EU to help migrants and locals alike find a hopeful solution.

In my next blog, I’ll look at what some migrants are doing and ideas that Italians have put in place to aid with cultural integration.

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