Migrant arrivals electrify demographic debate in southern Europe


Matteo Salvini, leader of the Italian far-right League, was quick to welcome the decision of the Spanish socialist government to send the army when thousands of migrants entered its territory.

“Spain is defending its borders,” Salvini said of this month’s scenes in Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in North Africa where soldiers have been deployed to refuse predominantly Moroccan arrivals. “Now it’s our turn.”

He sought to establish a contrast with Lampedusa, the Italian island outpost which is one of the main destinations for boats crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa, and where more than 1,000 undocumented migrants arrived in 24 hours this this month.

While the circumstances of Lampedusa are very different from those of Ceuta, where a Spanish-Moroccan agreement allowed the rapid return of the vast majority of those who crossed the border, Spain and Italy share very similar difficulties in immigration matters.

Migrants on the Italian island of Lampedusa prepare to board a ship bound for Sicily © Alberto Pizzoli / AFP via Getty Images

They are currently the two main EU countries on the front line for migrants crossing the Mediterranean: last year, 42,000 people arrived in Spain according to the International Organization for Migration, against 34,000 in Italy and 15,000 in Greece.

Italy and Spain both also face serious demographic challenges due to the rapid aging of their populations.

Indeed, just two days after mobilizing Spanish troops to help close Ceuta to undocumented migrants, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez unveiled research that highlighted Spain’s dependence on the large-scale immigration for decades to come.

The paper, Spain 2050, the product of a year of work by academics and analysts, argued that while the country maintains net immigration of 191,000 per year for the next three decades – somewhat below the recent historic average – its population of working age would drop 3.7 million from its current level of around 31m.

Such a shift, he admitted, could shrink the size of the economy and put a strain on the country’s welfare state.

A Spanish soldier stands next to migrants resting after swimming across the Spanish-Moroccan border © Jon Nazca / Reuters

On the other hand, according to the document, if net immigration were higher, at 255,000 per year, the decline in the available labor force would be halved, to 1.8 million by 2050.

Diego Rubio, the official who coordinated the report, argued that there was no contradiction in the government’s position. “The fight against irregular immigration at our borders and the promotion of legal immigration in our cities are perfectly compatible”, he declared.

He continued: “Spain is open to those who seek a better future because it is a united country which knows that we need foreign people to fight against demographic decline and to guarantee the prosperity and well-being of the country. in the medium and long term. “

As a reminder of the stakes, the OECD predicted on Thursday that Spain would become by 2050 the member state with the highest old-age dependency ratio – the proportion of people over 65 compared to the age-old population. to work – after Japan and the working-age population. South Korea.

Spain remains less concerned about immigration than other European countries. According to a recent Eurobarometer poll, less than one in three Spaniards cited migration as one of the bloc’s main challenges, below a European average of 44%.

Santiago Abascal, right, leader of the far-right Vox party, arrives at El Tarajal beach in Ceuta © Brais Lorenzo / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

However, the issue has become more sensitive with the emergence of the far-right Vox party, which denounces illegal migrants even in regional elections and denounced both the government’s handling of the incursions into Ceuta and the Spain 2050 document. Santiago Abascal, leader of Vox, described the proposal as a plan “to replace the [Spanish] population”.

While Vox’s rise to power has made the immigration discussion more controversial in Spain, the debate in Italy, where the Salvini League leads the polls, is even more tense.

Partly because of recent lower immigration rates, Italy’s demographic problems are even more severe than those of Spain. Last year, the country’s population fell by nearly 400,000 people – equivalent to the loss of the entire population of Florence – in the biggest drop in more than a century.

But mainstream politicians have generally been very reluctant to suggest increased migration as a solution.

Matteo Salvini takes part in an anti-immigration demonstration in Milan in 2014 © Marco Bertorello / AFP

Salvini and other anti-migrant leaders have instead called for an increase in the birth rate. When Tito Boeri, then director of the Italian pension agency, suggested three years ago that the country needed more legal migration, Salvini, then interior minister, accused him of ” live on Mars ”. Boeri was replaced shortly after.

Today, as better weather conditions increase the likelihood of more migrant boats crossing the Mediterranean, the issue is rising on the political agenda.

Mario Draghi, Italian Prime Minister, announced his intention to reduce illegal arrivals by working closely with the Libyan and Tunisian governments and to redistribute migrants in EU member states.

He pledged to pursue a “humane” policy where “no one will be left alone in Italian waters”. Yet 130 migrants reportedly drowned off the Libyan coast last month – a tragedy denounced by Pope Francis as a “moment of shame”.

Salvini and Giorgia Meloni, leader of the far-right opposition party Brothers of Italy, denounced the recent surge in arrivals from Libya to islands such as Sicily and Lampedusa.

Some activists say such anti-migrant policies set the agenda. “This is a very important question for politicians because it influences the voters a lot,” said Marta Bernardini of the NGO Mediterranean Hope, which works in Lampedusa.

“Left parties are afraid of populism and, at the moment, they do not present a clear vision of migration policy,” she said.

Despite these tensions, Mariona Lozano, a researcher at the Center for Demographic Studies in Barcelona, ​​argued that, at least for Spain, the influxes of recent years must continue.

“Migration responds to economic pressures,” she said. “The vast majority of people born abroad in Spain come from the Americas and Europe, but migration from North Africa is the oldest route and it is not going to stop.”

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