Italian migrants from Piedmont cross the Alps to enter France in 1946 | Credit: Museum of history of migration
Italian migrants from Piedmont cross the Alps to enter France in 1946 | Credit: Museum of history of migration

Since the far right came to power in Italy, the southern European nation’s migrant policies have hardened considerably. Yet in the 20th century, many Italians emigrated themselves in the search for a better life, fleeing economic hardship and Mussolini’s authoritarian regime.

Matteo Salvini’s campaign slogans set the tone for what was to come: "Stop the invasion" and "Italians first" - that was what the leader of the Lega Nord promised Italian voters leading up to the March 2018 election. Salvini also said he would deport 500,000 illegal immigrants within five years. 

Since the far-right politician entered the government as the country’s new interior minister in June 2018, he has worked day and night to deliver on his anti-migrant election promises. The Italian government is now in the midst of drastically ramping up its expulsion of illegal migrants, multiplying its number of migrant detention centres and striking repatriation deals with countries whose nationals have sought refuge in Italy. Migrant ships have also been barred from setting anchor in Italian ports, and Salvini has vowed to “take a scissor” and slash the annual €5 billion budget that has so far been earmarked for asylum seekers. Since Salvini entered the Italian government, the country has also seen an increase in xenophobic hate crimes.

Ironically enough, up until the mid-20th century, Italy itself was an emigrant nation, with millions of Italians leaving the country to seek their luck elsewhere around the world. 

We take a look at Italy’s migration history:

1. France, US, Argentina among top destinations for Italian migrants before WWI

At the start of the 20th century, and until the outbreak of World War I, more than 10 million Italians left the southern European peninsula. The first wave of Italian migrants crossed the Atlantic Ocean in search for a better life in the United States of America. A second wave of Italian migrants set its sights on Argentina, while a third group made its way to France which was in desperate need of workers.

Italian migrants from Piedmont cross the Alps to enter France in 1946. Photo: Museum of history of migration

According to the Paris-based museum of the history of immigration, some 420,000 Italians immigrated to France just before the outbreak of WWI, with Italians accounting for 36 percent of all foreigners in the country, and more than 1 percent of the total population.

The explanation for this exodus is simple: Italy was poorly industrialized, and too rural and archaic in its infrastructure. In one single year, more than 870,000 Italians left their homeland in search for a better life.

At the end of WWI, the situation in Italy got even worse. The country was suffering from the damage brought on by the war. The lire plunged in value, while the cost of living soared. As soldiers returned from the battlefront, Italy’s unemployment rate hit new record levels. Fascism began to take hold as Benito Mussolini presented himself as a bulwark against disorder and chaos.

2. Fleeing Mussolini, fascism and poverty

The new fascist government came to power in 1922. In just a few months, the Mussolini cabinet transformed into an authoritarian regime that terrorized its people. Italian communists left the country because they feared persecution from “Il Duce” (The Leader) and his blackshirt army. But not all Italian emigrants were anti-fascist: thousands of farmers and workers left for France to find work in the country’s growing mine and steel industries.

In 1931, more than 800,000 Italians lived on French soil and the influx only started to stem at the outbreak of WWII.

Italian migrants work the fields in Louisiana, in the United States, in 1939. Photo: Library of Congress

Just as today, having migrants live side by side with the local population was complicated, with employment being an especially sensitive issue, according to Marie-Claude Blanc-Chaléard, a specialist on migration history. Locals frequently accused Italians of stealing French jobs by accepting lower wages. A horrific example of such anti-Italian hatred in France is the massacre at Aigues-Mortes in Provence that happened in 1893: A group of French workers killed Italian migrants for allegedly stealing their jobs by accepting to work in the region’s salt marshes at lower salaries. 

3. ‘Rital’ and ‘macaroni’

Italian migrants were - just like many other migrant groups - subject to both xenophobia and discrimination as they set up their new lives abroad. In France, they were often called pejorative names, such as “rital” and “macaroni”. Their children suffered similar treatment at school.

François Cavanna (1923-2014), illustrator and creator of the monthly French satirical magazine Hara-Kiri (the predecessor to Charlie Hebdo), once recalled his youth as a young Italian migrant in Paris: "They started to call us 'ritals' when I was 10 years old. Before that, it was 'macaronis.' We were the only foreigners at the time. I remember the racism in the street, in the school yard, in the shops. They told me to 'go back where you come from,' and I fought. My classmates didn’t invite me home to them, and I didn’t invite them home to my place."

Italian migrants in France, in 1920. Photo: Museum of history of migration

In the 1950s, the image of Italian migrants started to improve somewhat and their presence was increasingly tolerated, but some clichés remained.

4. The 1960s, 1970s and 1980s: Italy becomes a migrant destination

With start in the 1960s, but especially in the 1970s, Italy was suddenly confronted with an influx of migrants. Italian migrants (and their descendants) who once left their native homeland for a better life in South America now wanted to return, because their new home countries - like Chile and Argentina - faced economic hardship, while Italy's economy was booming. 

History was turned on its head, and it was now Italy's turn to call for cheap migrant labour, particularly in its seasonal sectors, such as hotel, agriculture and construction industries. In the 1980s, several provinces took in illegal migrants, who in turn needed to accept lower salaries and precarious working conditions. In Italy, these migrant groups became victims of both racism and xenophobia, and few of them were offered help.

Considering Italy’s history, the country "could easily be more generous in their reception [of today’s migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa]," historian Marie-Anne Bonucci told FRANCE 24 in an interview.


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