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Italy's 'emergency' immigration crisis could be a swing factor in election

  • Immigration has become a central topic in the run-up to the Italian election on March 4.
  • Tensions are running high over the number of migrants arriving and living in the country.
  • The migration crisis continues to dominate headlines in Italy, and across Europe.
A group of illegal migrants are processed by Italian officials and given basic health checks by members of the Italian Red Cross as they disem
Gideon Mendel/Corbis via Getty Images

Immigration has become a central topic in the run-up to the Italian election on March 4 as tensions run high over the number of migrants arriving and living in the country.

Italy is a focal point of Europe's wider migrant crisis. The country has seen hundreds of thousands of people arrive from war-torn or poverty-stricken parts of Africa in recent years, its position across the Mediterranean Sea from the continent making it a first port of call for those arriving by boat.

In 2017, 119,310 migrants arrived in Italy after traveling by sea, according to data released in January from the UN's International Organization for Migration (IOM). The organization recorded that 2,832 people died or went missing making the journey.

Last year's arrival figures were the lowest in four years, the IOM said. At the height of the European migrant crisis in 2016, 181,436 people made the journey to Italy and 4,581 were recorded as dead or missing.

Political opinion

At the height of the crisis, public opinion in Europe was broadly sympathetic to the plight of many migrants, many of whom were fleeing war in the Middle East and poverty in Africa. That sentiment has been eroded due to the sheer number of arrivals, however.

Italy - the euro zone's third largest economy, but slower to recover from the 2008 financial crisis than other European countries - has particularly struggled to deal with the influx and public and political opinion has turned increasingly negative towards the arrivals.

The tense climate surrounding immigration came to a head in early February after a drive-by shooting that left injured a group of foreign nationals in the town of Macerata. The attack is believed to have been racially motivated and carried out by a neo-Nazi with previous links to the anti-immigration Northern League (Lega Nord) party.

While the party's leader, Matteo Salvini, condemned the violence, he also noted in a Facebook post that "immigration out of control leads to chaos, anger, social confrontation."

Also responding to the attack, former prime minister and leader of Forza Italia, Silvio Berlusconi, said that immigration was an "emergency" in the country.

Speaking to national broadcaster Rai Tre, the right-leaning politician, whose party is an ally of the anti-immigrant Northern League, said the number of migrants arriving in Italy was causing "serious social alarm." He added that the current center-left's asylum policy was tantamount to a "social timebomb."

That's not to say the center-left government has had much of a softer approach to the migrant influx.

Italy's Interior Minister Marco Minniti, a member of the ruling Democratic Party (PD) has frequently expressed plans to expel more migrants, but doing so can prove difficult and costly in practice.

Last July, Matteo Renzi, former prime minister and head of the PD, said Italy did not have any moral duty to take in migrants, prompting critics to accuse him of taking the position of his right-leaning rivals.

"We need to free ourselves from a sense of guilt. We do not have the moral duty to welcome into Italy people who are worse off than ourselves," Renzi wrote in new book, excerpts of which were released last year ahead of publication on the PD website and reported by Reuters.

The government has also put off reforms to citizenship laws in Italy, encompassed in the so-called "ius soli" bill, which would create an earlier path to citizenship for children of foreign parents born and schooled in Italy, amid pressure from center-right parties and ahead of the election.

Italy's most popular singular party in the polls, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, has also expressed a tough attitude towards migration.

Former leader Beppe Grillo has said undocumented migrants should be expelled from Italy and its current leader, Luigi Di Maio, likened sea rescues of migrants as a "sea-taxi service" that must be stopped immediately. Di Maio also said in January that the declining birth rate among Italians must not be a reason to favor immigration.

Public opinion

Similar to the rest of Europe, Italy has seen a rise in right-wing, populist and anti-immigration parties and movements. But anti-immigrant sentiment was commonplace in Italy even before the migrant influx, with reports of violence against foreign workers recorded, overt racism in political debates and polls showing public opinion largely negative towards immigration.

At a wider level, according to the European Union's barometer of public opinion published in spring 2017, members of the EU public said that immigration was the second most important issue facing the bloc, after terrorism.

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Given a long-standing skepticism surrounding immigration, it's not a surprise that a coalition of center-right parties led by Berlusconi have fared better in public debates. Their stance on immigration, and the tide of public opinion, could be reflected in the election result, Eurasia Group analyst Federico Santi said Monday.

"Right-wing parties are better-placed to capitalize from most of the key issues in the election campaign, particularly on immigration and security," he said in a note. "Similarly, on economic issues the right-wing platform is likely to be more convincing relative to the incumbent Democratic Party, whose five-year stint in power has failed to deliver the promised economic turnaround."