Up until the latter part of the 20th century, the southern regions of Italy were sites of emigration. Since the 1990s however, some of these areas – originally points of departure – have progressively transformed into areas for the arrival and reception of different types of migration.

The ‘Locride’ area in Calabria, for example, has become the site of innovations in the reception of displaced migrants and refugees. Some of these schemes have been in place since the end of the 1990s and have become a model for reception and integration. The central role of Riace and some neighbouring municipalities has thus facilitated – not without great difficulty – a certain way of responding to the ’refugee crisis’. Here, forms of solidarity have been forged between individuals (the locals and migrants) and public bodies which tend to be overlooked.

This phenomenon occurred in the context of a serious imbalance in the population distribution across Italy, and despite high unemployment rates, along with other relevant push factors.

The south of Italy became, therefore, a point of arrival but this did not change the behaviour of the existing population, which continued to “flee” to look for better living conditions elsewhere.

In recent years, emigration towards the regions of Northern Italy and abroad has started up again, particularly among those with medium to high-level qualifications.

These people, in any case, are struggling to enter the labour market or are no longer willing to live in precarious conditions. These are numbers that show the persistence of a deep gap between the North and the South of the Italian peninsula and highlight significant economic and social obstacles.

Is the Italian system able to cope and respond?

The legislation (Art. 22 Of Italian LD No. 286/1998) which is supposed to regulate the relationship between labour supply and demand, is very confusing. The current system, in fact, introduces a mechanism in which a ‘foreigner’ who wants to obtain a residence permit for work reasons must remain in their country of origin until the conclusion of the long entry procedure.

In other words, the application is not admissible for those already on Italian soil.

This procedure contrasts with the normal recruitment mechanisms, based on a direct acquaintance between the employer and the migrant seeking work. The ineffectiveness of this system increases the precariousness of workers who are present illegally, and encourages exploitation in the labour market. This situation makes the processes of enhancing the presence of migrant workers in Italy more difficult.

On the other hand, due to its geographical position, a substantial part of the South of Italy (Sicily, Calabria and Puglia) plays the uncomfortable role of the “front line”, enduring the human, social, political and financial challenges of arrivals, and also taking up a leading role in the reception of forced migrants.

Certainly, it is true that the persistence of less-controllable forms of access makes this part of the country a so called ‘gateway’ for irregular migration. The south of Italy is the place of transit to those areas where there are more opportunities to enter the labour market.

Although not the final destination, the south of Italy has encouraged seasonal migration, due to the existence of a large informal economy sector and the offer of low skilled jobs that do not require specialisation.

Nevertheless, beginning with the financial crisis of 2008, a “ruralisation” of immigrant employment and a certain concentration in particular areas of Southern Italy has occurred. It is a flow of immigrants who, once expelled from the labour market of the most productive areas of the North, have moved to the agricultural areas of the country, for seasonal and underpaid jobs.

What are the elements of contradiction in the Calabrian system?

The regional and local institutional responses have almost always been completely inadequate and inconclusive. Migrant workers have been exploited to the extent that some have compared their situation to modern day slavery. To these extreme conditions of labour exploitation, highlighted by the events of Rosarno, one can add the structural deficits of the southern regions in terms of social policies, housing, systems of territorial governance and effective management of the migratory phenomena.

However, if we see the southern regions as failing to adopt normative-programmatic frameworks for social policies, or the weakness of the politics of social assistance, health, housing and undeclared work, we would end up obscuring some of the reactions and transformations that the migratory phenomena has produced.

Contrary to what happens in some regions, in many places of southern Italy (and Calabria in particular) displaced peoples today are, for the most part, invited, welcomed, hosted and included in the urban in ways that remake common belonging.

It is predominantly the municipalities of the South that adhere to the integrated reception model for asylum seekers and refugees. These are the areas that implement project proposals to strengthen the capacity for managing unplanned migratory flows, thanks to participation processes from below. It is above all to this specificity that attention must be paid.

Yet we must also resist the idea that there are two opposing frontiers: one of acceptance in Southern Italy characterised by the cult of hospitality and the other of refusal or selective reception in that part of Italy (mainly the North-East) where a distorted use of public power by some local administrations is more common.

If, therefore, the experimentation and consolidation of virtuous solidarity practices are traceable also and above all in the South of Italy, it is worth carrying out accurate research into this phenomenon. This is what we are attempting to do as part of the GLIMER project.