Italy And The Diaspora: To Leave Or Not To Leave?

We should ask ourselves how we can encourage emigrants to return home rather than how to prevent them from leaving

Italy is a country that weeps for its residents that go to live abroad. Every year, countless space in broadsheets is dedicated to the phenomenon of the ‘cervelli in fuga’ or ‘brain drain’, which alludes to the flight of highly skilled professionals for better career prospects elsewhere in Europe or in the world.

The use of the term is highly emotional and has been used more widely to describe the country’s loss of large segments of its youth, highly skilled or not, who, discouraged by the current socio-economic climate, have voted with their feet. While a permanent brain drain of highly skilled professionals may lead to the decline in the fortunes of innovative and R&D dependent sectors, which are strategic for the preservation of a highly competitive economy, the loss of any young potential earner is always detrimental, given the inability to fund an increasingly unsustainable pension system which is hampered by a demographic pyramid that is skewed towards old age.

Emigration and a more flexible workforce

Such a phenomenon is not necessarily a death sentence. Migration can also become an asset, by helping cohorts of young professionals acquire new skills and knowledge abroad in educational establishments that far exceed those in Italy in terms of teaching quality, acceptance rates and further career opportunities. Indeed, emigration can offer young Italians with education opportunities that are scarcely available at home for those who deserve it, thus correcting a structural flaw to begin with.

Moreover, the experience of migration forces the emigrating youth to confront itself with new material cultures, becoming in its own way more nimble and culturally flexible, if not tolerant. Indeed, the departing youth is confronted with new languages while working with colleagues from far afield, forcing them not only to develop language skills but also key soft skills and the ability to navigate different cultures. In addition, the young emigrants may even experience different working cultures and attitudes to work and within work, such as more flexible approaches to working from home or maternity/paternity leave, as well as a less hierarchical view within organisations and perhaps even a more gender-balanced view of the workplace than they might have ever developed in Italy.

The process of migration can thus help Italy develop a more flexible workforce that is professionally literate, but more importantly culturally-literate, which will be able to interact with different societies, a prime resource for the new economy that is developing in the third millennium.

More development back home

So perhaps instead of only weeping, one must first look at the beneficial outcomes of migration and understand that migration can also benefit development back home. It is no surprise that the UN encourages countries to integrate migration as part of their development strategies, to enrich their own workforces and to correct systemic distortions at home. The conversation should therefore shift towards asking ourselves how we can encourage emigrants to return home instead of asking how to prevent them from leaving.

For this to become possible, Italy should devise ways of ensuring that its migration becomes circular, whereby those who leave might someday be compelled to return home and bring back their newly acquired skills, thus becoming sea-turtles or hǎiguī, as the Chinese like to call their own returnees. To this end, the Italian government should actively seek its citizens abroad an entice them to return through specialized programs including temporary mobility schemes for academics and researchers based abroad, professional schemes in fully or partially state-owned enterprises, if not even fiscal incentives or facilitated loans for Italian entrepreneurs based abroad for every investment they make in the country. Different formulas for this have been experimented in different countries and perhaps this is not the place to expound on them in detail.

The cultural and economic capital of the past diaspora

It is clear though that Italy ought to be more ambitious and that any program encouraging some return migration cannot be limited to the current migratory stream leaving the peninsula, and that special provisions should also be designed to leverage the cultural and economic capital of the diaspora of centuries past.

From 1861 to 1985, it is estimated that more than 16 million Italian citizens settled permanently to places in North America, Latin America, Oceania, Africa and elsewhere in Europe. It is estimated that up to 25 million Brazilians and Argentinians today are of significant Italian heritage, so are 16 million Americans and more than 1 million people in either Canada and Australia. Many of these descendants yearn for their ancestral homeland in different ways and Italy should try to leverage the wealth of cultural and economic capital that these communities can offer. To this end, Italian embassies, consulates and cultural centres must continue their vigorous outreach activities to promote Italian culture and language among diaspora communities and encourage travel and study to the country.

Moreover, links need to be established with community associations to determine how Italians abroad can play a vital role in the socio-economic life of the country. These contributions may include financial investments in innovative industries or investments directed towards helping preserve Italy’s extensive cultural and architectural heritage, which is increasingly difficult to maintain.

The same outreach programmes that could be potentially be offered to expatriate citizens could also be expanded to involve the sons/daughter of the diaspora to enable descendants to participate in the management of the economy of Italy, the promotion of its arts and cultural life. Why not encourage, for example, special mobility schemes for professionals of diaspora descent in national firms, or establish capital funds for start-up owners or IT developers to operate in Italy and provide special bursaries for students to come to Italy to study or promote artistic programs that bring together arts graduates from different destinations of the diaspora and bring along their intercultural experience to the country?

This should also be complemented with a streamlined path to citizenship if they decide to settle and become taxpayers, including a recognition of foreign study titles and special provisions to facilitate the portability of health and pension benefits or compensate for the lack of it. Italy should also not forget to privilege assistance and offer a helping hand should the descendants of the diaspora find themselves in tricky socio-political situations or in turbulent regimes, whether in Venezuela or those being established in places such as Brazil by the new right.

The opportunity of return migration

To conclude, Italy should not lament migration but work towards making itself ready to re-absorb potential returnees and seize the opportunity that migration can provide for Italy in both economic and cultural terms. If Italy rises to the occasion, return migration could offer the country a new lease of life and the cultural and societal renewal that it currently strives for.

It would fanciful to believe that large numbers of Italian abroad will return to Italy en-masse and lead to a regeneration of national life, but even small numbers might provide an ingredient that will help Italy address its structural problems. Beyond the return of its recent migrants and potential return of any descendant of older migration, Italy must also not forget to nurture the talent of those citizens of recent foreign origins, such as the sons and daughters of migrants from countries like China, the Philippines or Egypt, among others, that have become more numerous and integrated in the different fabrics of society, and prevent them from becoming hǎiguī themselves.

Hopefully, the cultural, political and economic elites of the country will be able to seize this and take advantage of one of Italy’s few remaining natural resources, its own people, wherever they are and come from.