The arrival of migrants electrifies the demographic debate of Southern Europe

Matteo Salvini, leader of the Italian Hard Right League, is ready to praise the decision by the Spanish government led by the Socialists of send into the army when thousands of migrants entered its territory.

“Spain is defending its borders,” Salvini said at this month’s scenes in Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in North Africa where soldiers have been set aside to ward off arrivals for most Moroccans. “Now it’s our turn.”

He sought to make a contrast with Lampedusa, the Italian island outpost that is one of the main destinations for boats crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa, and where more than 1000 undocumented migrants have arrived in a period of 24 years. hours this month.

While the circumstances of Lampedusa are very different from those of Ceuta, where a Spanish-Moroccan agreement allowed the rapid return of the vast majority of those who crossed the border, Spain and Italy have very similar precedents as regards the immigration.

Migrants on the Italian island of Lampedusa prepare to board a ship bound for Sicily © Alberto Pizzoli / AFP via Getty Images

They are currently the two main EU front-line states for migrants crossing the Mediterranean: last year 42,000 people arrived in Spain according to International Organization for Migration, compared with 34,000 in Italy and 15,000 in Greece.

Italy and Spain also face both severe demographic challenges from rapidly aging populations.

In fact, just two days after the mobilization of Spanish troops to help close Ceuta to undocumented migrants, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has unveiled research establishing Spain’s dependence on large-scale immigration for decades to come. .

The letter, Spain 2050, the product of a year’s work by academics and analysts, argued that even if the country maintained net immigration of 191,000 a year for the next three decades – slightly below the recent historical average – its working age population would fall by 3.7m from its current level of about 31m.

Such a slide, he acknowledged, could reduce the size of the economy and undermine the country’s welfare state.

A Spanish soldier stands next to migrants resting after swimming across the Spanish-Moroccan border © Jon Nazca / Reuters

On the contrary, the document said that if net immigration were higher, at 255,000 per year, the decline in the available labor force would be halved, to 1.8m by 2050.

Diego Rubio, the official who coordinated the report, said there was no contradiction in the government’s position. “The fight against irregular immigration at our borders and the promotion of legal immigration in our cities are perfectly compatible,” he said.

He continued: “Spain is open to those looking for a better future because it is a country with a sense of solidarity that knows we need people from outside to fight the demographic decline and ensure the prosperity and well-being of the people. country in the middle and long term. ”

In a reminder of the problems at stake, the OECD predicted on Thursday that Spain would become by 2050 the member state with the highest ratio of dependency on old age – the proportion of over 65s to the working age population -. after Japan and South Korea.

Spain remains less concerned about immigration than other European countries. According to a recent Eurobarometer survey, less than one in three Spaniards cited migration as one of the bloc’s main challenges, below an EU-wide average of 44%.

Santiago Abascal, right, leader of the hard-wing right-wing party Vox, arrives at El Tarajal beach in Ceuta © Brais Lorenzo / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

However, the issue has become more sensitive with the emergence of the hard-line Vox party, which calls against illegal migrants even in regional elections and has denounced both the government’s management of incursions into Ceuta and u Spain 2050 document. Santiago Abascal, head of Vox, described the proposal as a “plan” to replace it [Spanish] population ‘.

If the rise of Vox has made the discussion of immigration the most contentious in Spain, the debate in Italy, where the Salvini League leads the polls, is even more frustrating.

Partly because of recent lower immigration rates, Italy’s demographic problems are even more severe than that of Spain. Last year the country’s population fell by almost 400,000 people – equivalent to losing the entire population of Florence – in the largest decline in more than a century.

But key policies have generally been very reluctant to suggest increasing migration as a solution.

Matteo Salvini participates in an anti-immigration demonstration in Milan in 2014 © Marco Bertorello / AFP

Salvini and other anti-migrant leaders have instead called for a boost to the birth rate. When Tito Boeri, then head of the Italian pension agency, suggested three years ago that the country needed more legal migration, Salvini, at the time interior minister, accused him of “living on Mars.” Boeri was replaced shortly afterwards.

Now, as the climate better increases the likelihood of more migrant boats crossing the Mediterranean, the question also raises the political agenda.

Mario Draghi, Italian prime minister, has announced plans to cut illegal arrivals by working closely with the Libyan and Tunisian governments and redistributing migrants in all EU member states.

He promised to pursue a “humane” policy where “no one will be left alone in Italian waters”. Yet 130 migrants are believed to have drowned off the coast of Libya last month – a tragedy denounced by Pope Francis as a “moment of shame”.

Both Salvini and Giorgia Meloni, leaders of the far-right opposition Fratelli d’Italia party, have blamed the recent rise in arrivals from Libya on islands such as Sicily and Lampedusa.

Some activists express that such anti-migrant policies set the agenda. “It’s a very important issue for politicians because it greatly influences voters,” said Marta Bernardini of the NGO Mediterranean Hope, which works in Lampedusa.

“Left parties are afraid of populism, and at the moment they do not present a clear vision of migration policy,” he said.

Despite such tensions, Mariona Lozano, a researcher at the Center for Demographic Studies in Barcelona, ​​argued that, at least for Spain, the influx of recent years should continue.

“Migration responds to economic pressures,” he said. “The vast majority of born abroad People in Spain come from America and Europe, but migration from North Africa is the oldest route and will not stop. ”

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