Perceptions and Realities of Migrants in Southern Italy

Migration has become a highly debated and fairly misunderstood topic in contemporary politics. While taking part in the European ARISE project (Analysing Refugee Inclusion in Southern Europe) in Southern Italy, I met Hamady, a migrant from Senegal. Whilst telling me about his own perspective on migration, he explained that if you have not ‘witnessed it’ you are unable to fully comprehend it. This is why he believes in the importance of recounting his own experience to sensitise the general public on the issue. ‘It is part of the integration process’, he says. 

Hamady left Senegal when he was seventeen years old. He had wandered around Europe before settling in Calabria, Southern Italy, where he eventually became a cultural mediator for asylum seekers. People’s attitude towards migration was different when he arrived; Italians were much more welcoming, whereas nowadays a common fear of ‘the Other’ haunts the country. Italy has witnessed the triumph of a politics of fear exploited by the government to achieve  consensus on immigration issues. Thus, Italians’ perception of migration has been influenced by the hard line taken by the government. 

Although migration has been framed by the government as the largest issue in Italy, Hamady admits that he is grateful for what Italy has done for him. ‘It is not the people. It all depends on the orientation of the government and I do not want to blame the population. To me, Italians have been welcoming and sympathetic with migrants arriving in the country’. The phenomenon of migration incorporates a variety of perspectives that come from everyone involved. Perceptions can change over time, impacting behaviours, integration, the future of those who migrate, the new reality they approach and the old one that they leave behind. Discussing these perceptions is essential to understanding migration, and sharing  experiences is a crucial mechanism in enabling support for the integration of migrants in local communities. However, this discourse is difficult to attain because the voices of migrants are often lost in the debate. 

To Hamady, migration is a crossover between cultures that include the will of the migrant, the host population’s will to welcome, and a common desire of integration. Having visited different countries before settling in Southern Italy, Hamady says he found it more difficult to integrate anywhere other than Calabria. His perception of migration has also changed profoundly over the course of this journey. 

‘When you are a migrant, your perception goes through various stages, shifting from a negative to a positive connotation. When you leave your homeland, you carry your family’s dreams and expectations. It is like a sunflower; each petal is someone’s dream and you are the centre from which they stem, holding them together. You perceive the act of migrating as your duty to carry those petals to a safer place in order to change your family’s life and future, feeling a great responsibility not to let them down. However, your perception undergoes a change once you reach Europe, as you discover new cultures, new realities, new ways of developing and changing your life. For the migrant what first felt like a duty, becomes a chance to think about himself and his future in the new country, also driven by the necessity to survive in the new environment. Alongside the will to make your family proud, there is the need for you as a person to do something positive for yourself, to take all the possibilities the host country gives you, finally changing your life. While you realize that you need to focus on yourself first in order to be able to change both your family’s life and yours, you understand how tough it is to turn everyone’s dreams into reality. The migrant has to cope with the feeling of failure in making his family happy and easily becomes victim of mental health issues, hardly having someone to support him. Consequently, the host country’s perception of migrants can result to be negative because of their aggressive approach, which often leads people to label such individuals as ‘problems’ for national security. On the other side, the perception of the family members who watch the migrant’s experience from the outside is completely detached from reality. Their desire to realize their dreams as well as the stories of those who come back after having found a better place set high expectations. They do not perceive the difficulty of settling in a new country with the weight of everyone’s dreams on their shoulders.’

These days, migration is frequently discussed but often misperceived. As Hamady demonstrates to us, a simple change in perspective gives one the chance to discover meaning in a phenomenon with characteristics previously taken for granted. Being open minded towards other  experiences, particularly with sensitive issues such as migration, can help erase fears and deconstruct preconceived notions. As Hamady said, with a big smile and the incredible joy that is so typical of him, ‘It is beautiful to talk about migration, about our different points of view. I feel happy while sharing my experience and hearing others. This makes me constantly learn. We should all do so, and never stop’.

 

Maria Chiara Aquilino

Maria Chiara Aquilino is a third-year undergraduate student studying International Relations at King’s College London.

 

The featured image (top) of ‘Monarch butterfly in BBG’ is by Rhododendrites and is licensed under Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0). The monarch butterfly is widely recognized as a symbol of the ‘dignity and resilience of migrants’, as well as the right of all living beings to move freely around the world.

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