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Migration: reality and perception

Interview with Maurizio Ambrosini

Emigration and immigration: stories of those who leave their country in order to try and settle in another are now a regular part of the global agenda. In Europe the issue is taking on a greater importance because, in addition to the constant increase in numbers of the foreign population, there is the now the open question of asylum seekers arriving from Syria and other warzones.

We spoke to Maurizio Ambrosini, professor of Sociology of Migration at the University of Milan.


Professor, in recent times we have seen an increase in migration flows. This has provoked intense debate and concern in European societies.

If we just look at the numbers, we can see that 86% of the world’s refugees are not in Europe. In spite of this, the perception of an “invasion” prevails on the continent. The disparity between perceived and real immigration is extremely strong and often warped by the fact that the debate focuses not on immigration in itself but on the arrival of asylum seekers. In Italy we have for example 180 thousand refugees compared with more than five million immigrants. There is much talk of the former and little of the latter. And this is a reflection of this deviation between perceived and real immigration that we are experiencing in Italy and in the rest of Europe.

The European Union has established a series of actions to deal with the issue of refugees. On one hand it has requested that all member states accept a particular number of asylum seekers, on the other, it has made agreements with transit countries such as Turkey, Libya, and Niger. How do you judge Brussels’ approach?

To talk about a plan is very difficult: there is an overlap between the various actions but, more importantly, there is a lack of consensus. The EU countries are divided; they cannot manage to agree. This is the case in particular for the resettlement program, the implementation of which has largely been inadequate. Furthermore, that approach has a serious failing: it does not take into account the asylum seeker’s freedom to choose. If we really want to talk about a plan, it is necessary to focus on the agreements with the transit countries. However, there is a weakness also here because these agreements are “sold” to the public as ways of combating people trafficking.

Is the problem of people trafficking overestimated in your opinion?

Not, at all. I would underline that also in this case, from an anthropological point of view let’s say, the asylum seeker is seen as a prevalently passive subject. Concerning the resettlement program, the fact that the asylum seekers may have their own preferences for a particular country, where they have plans, hopes and dreams, is ignored. Here they are perceived prevalently as victims of traffickers or regimes from which they are escaping. They are forced to prove that they are victims otherwise they run the risk of being considered illegal immigrants. The paradox is that while we treat them as passive subjects, we ask asylum seekers to be active in integrating into our societies. So, I think that this, on our part as Europeans is not a good investment.

From asylum to integration. What does this process depend on?

Much depends on the market.  Over the years the market has absorbed more immigrants than politics was ever willing to allow into Europe. This demonstrates that the decisions of governments on entry quotas or border security have an effect but are not omnipotent. It is fair to imagine that, even in the absence of these measures, today we would have the same number of immigrants. It is the market, in fact, that makes the difference.

Who integrates best in Europe?

Germany, because in that country they make policies that are better than elsewhere and they and have a larger market; also Sweden, where asylum in reality is a tool for recruiting manpower for the local market, manpower that, however, often relates to the lower segments of the job market. Here we touch on a critical point. For example, it may occur that a Syrian pharmacist, forced to flee his country, arrives in Germany and finds himself working as a labourer because his qualifications are not recognized. There are many such cases. The European employment market does absorb, but it is a bit miserly when it comes to including immigrants in certain sectors, in certain professions.

How is it possible to intervene?

First of all, by changing the words used. It is one thing to say “immigrants are needed”, it is another to say “it is necessary to attract students, nurses etc.). Reasoning in such way the question becomes more governable and acceptable to public opinion. Otherwise the idea persists that immigrants are the world’s poor that are turning up on our shores. It is an idea that is largely wrong. The Syrians, for example, are qualified. The majority of those who flee Syria come from the middle class, theirs was and is a search for a better life.

What percentage of immigrants decide at a certain point to return to their country of origin?

Return immigration does exist, especially towards countries that are experiencing a period of economic expansion, such as Poland, Romania, some states in Latin America and China. Those who decide to return do so in order to benefit from the growth and take advantage of the opportunities connected to that. But in general I would say that when it comes to returning, it’s easy to say but harder to do. Often immigrants remain due to questions relating to pensions, or in order to avoid risking losing a share of the contributions that they have been paying over the years. Also important are the habits and quality of life, the food, or even the simple fact that in their country of origin there may not be a continuous supply of running water. Today a new phenomenon is beginning to appear: it is not that of return migration but rather the transfer from one European country to another, the so-called “second migrations”.