November 22, 2009

More Italians Living Abroad…and as Usual, Most of Them are Southerners

By Niccolò Graffio

Since the disastrous Risorgimento which destroyed the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (among other nation-states) 150 years ago and left the pseudo-state known as Italy in its wake, few economic opportunities have existed for Sicilians*. This was largely due to the concentration of capital in the North by decrees from the House of Savoy. Victor Emmanuel II had decided that the industrialization of Italy was to be solely in the North. To drive the point home, he had Piedmontese troops disassemble factories in Naples (the former capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies) and shipped north of the Po River.
When the people of the newly-incorporated South realized Garibaldi’s promises of land and political reform were just so much hot air, they took up arms in an ultimately futile effort to retake their ancestral homeland. After years of fighting (and brutal reprisals), Victor Emmanuel’s troops finally succeeded in “pacifying” the region. Faced with the grim prospects of having exchanged one inept monarchy for another, of having seen more arable land wind up under the corrupt latifundia system of tenure, and of now having to contend with new phenomena: the vicious Camorra & Mafia, fed up Southerners “voted with their feet” and began to emigrate in huge numbers.
To be sure, however, Southerners weren’t the only ones who had serious problems with the House of Savoy’s new “Patria”. Government records show, for example, that between the years 1861-1961 about 3 million Venetians emigrated to escape the impoverishment of their region.

Even Milan, which undoubtedly fared a lot better, economically-speaking, as a result of the Risorgimento (thanks in large measure to a flurry of railroad-building) than any other city in the new country, had its share of troubles. Famine and runaway inflation triggered riots in that city which culminated in the infamous Bava-Beccaris Massacre on May 9, 1898! Depending on your sources, 118-400 people were killed and 450 to over 2,000 injured in what King Umberto I termed “…a great service to the King and to the Country”.

As bad as all that was, however, none of it could compare to the utter destitution that was artificially imposed from up North upon the region Giuseppe Garibaldi contemptuously referred to as the Mezzogiorno. Despite its sometimes bumpy ride on the road to “unification”, Northern Italy ultimately benefited greatly from it. Northern plutocrats had no intention of allowing any threats to their new industrial wealth, and used their vast influence in the government to secure it in their own backyards.

Likewise the nobles and nouveau riche who owned the immense latifundia in the South resisted, often with murderous violence, any attempt at land reform. Whatever crumbs were left by Northern industrialists and Southern patricians were quickly gobbled up by parasitic criminal organizations like the Camorra and the Mafia (who often collaborated with the former). Since macroeconomics is a “zero sum game”, this guaranteed the overwhelming majority of people living in Southern Italy would remain in a state of perpetual poverty. Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising most would choose to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

For the past 150 years, that is exactly what they have been doing! As the following statistics clearly show: two world wars, the Great Depression, the so-called “Information Age” and even membership in the EU have changed nothing as far as the economic disparities between Northern and Southern Italy are concerned. Now as then, it is largely by design.

The Migrantes Foundation is a Roman Catholic organization that monitors immigration to and emigration from Italy. According to a report they released this November, 2009; 3.91 million Italian citizens are currently living outside Italy. Further reading uncovers these interesting facts.

• In 2008, the number was 3.73 million.

• The top destinations for Italian immigrants are Germany, Argentina, Switzerland, France, Brazil, Belgium and the US. Over 54 percent of them come from the impoverished south of the country. [Note: recent census figures show 45.5% of the pop. of Italy lives in the North; an area covering roughly 1/3 of the country. – NG]

• Most of the Italians who have emigrated come from the capital Rome, and the southern cities of Agrigento, Cosenza, Salerno and Naples.

• Fifty-four percent of them are under 35 years old. [There goes the next generation! – NG]

• In contrast, there are 3.89 million foreigners residing in Italy. [Note: Almost all of whom are living in the North. – NG]

This last one was my favorite.

Migrantes also said that usually, Italians who live abroad had become more prosperous.

So much for the myth of the lazy, inferior Southerner!

Final note: according to a report issued by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), even though Italy’s economy shows signs of improving, unemployment is expected to rise through 2011. This will no doubt trigger further emigration (especially of Southerners) from the country.

*Sicilians – former citizens (from both sides of the Strait of Messina) of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

Further reading:
• Ethnic America: A History: Thomas Sowell, Basic Books, 1983 (see sections on Italians).
• Italy and Its Discontents: Family, Civil Society, State: Paul Ginsborg, Palgrave Macmillian, 2006.