By Stefania Fumo
ROME, Oct. 11 (Xinhua) -- Immigration was a hot-button issue in Italy's national election earlier this year, but the country has been no stranger to the phenomenon over the past seven decades, according to a new study presented by the National Research Council (CNR) earlier this week.
In June 2018, a populist-rightwing coalition swept into power after a staunchly anti-immigrant, nationalist campaign in which candidates promised voters they would "kick 600,000 illegal immigrants out of Italy" while also rolling out generous welfare policies that would put "Italians first".
"With respect to the past, we face a paradoxical situation: arrivals have dropped over the past 10 years, but immigration has jumped to the foreground of public debate and become a more divisive issue than it was in the past," Michele Colucci, a researcher at the CNR's Institute for the Study of Mediterranean Societies (ISSM) and author of the study titled "History of Foreign Immigration into Italy from 1945 to the Present", told Xinhua.
Colucci's study, which was presented in Rome on Monday and in Naples on Wednesday, identifies "four great seasons" of immigration into Italy. In the period immediately after World War II there was an influx of refugees, university students, and residents of the country's former colonies in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Libya, and Somalia.
A second "wave" occurred at end of the 1960s, at the height of Italy's post-war economic boom, when foreigners came in search of work for the first time.
Colucci's study says that one of the first significant incoming movements was from Tunisia to the Sicilian port city of Trapani. Beginning exactly 50 years ago, in 1968, Tunisians were recruited to work on fishing vessels in the nearby town of Mazara del Vallo, which is home to Italy's largest fishing fleet.
The same period also saw an influx of female domestic workers, many of them from the island nation of Cape Verde.
A third spike in immigration occurred in 1991-2011, when according to official data cited by Colucci, foreign arrivals increased from 356,000 in 1991 to 4 million in 2011. These included many Eastern Europeans, who came in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and of the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s.
Arrivals slowed down following the global economic crisis that erupted in 2008. While authorities granted close to 600,000 residency permits to non-EU immigrants in 2010, this number fell to 227,000 such permits issued in 2016.
In terms of foreigners acquiring Italian citizenship, these grew from just over 12,000 in 2002 to just over 200,000 in 2016, according to Colucci's study.
"What could be defined as the 'fourth season' stems from the combined effects on Italy of the 2008 global economic crisis and the subsequent conflicts linked to the wars in the Middle East," Colucci told Xinhua.
"The most tangible result is a further shutdown in migration policies, so that entering Italy for work-related reasons has become more and more difficult, if not almost impossible."
In spite of the current anti-foreigner feeling that prevails in Italy, immigration could be a vital demographic element for the country, with its ageing population, sluggish economy and bloated public debt.
At the start of 2018, foreigners in Italy totaled just over 5 million out of a total population of 60.5 million, according to ISTAT national statistics institute.
Italy had zero population growth last year, with a historic low of 464,000 births against 647,000 deaths. But according to a 2017 study by Italian social and economic think tank Censis, immigrants can act as "an antidote to depopulation".
Population growth is important because countries in which old people outnumber the young will eventually lack new entries into the workforce who can pay into the national pension fund and keep the economy turning over.
"In an Italy in demographic decline, with births at their lowest point since 1861, there are 841 municipalities in which the population in 2011-2015 grew exclusively thanks to immigrants," Censis analysts wrote.
The municipalities in question are located throughout Italy and total 13.9 million inhabitants, or 23 percent of the national population, according to Censis.
Italy has just under 8,000 municipalities, according to 2018 data from ISTAT, so this means immigrants "saved" at least 10 percent of them from depopulation.
"The second and third (immigrant) generations represent one of the more dynamic, active and innovative elements of Italian society," Colucci concluded.