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From Emigration to Immigration in the Southern European Countries

Once North-Western European recruitment policies were discontinued in 1973– 1974 and the period of mass emigration from Southern Europe came to an end, Mediterranean countries began their gradual transformation to countries of immigration. Changes were spurred by unprecedented economic growth and political stability brought about by the end of the dictatorships in Portugal, Greece, and Spain, as well as by the accession of these countries to the European Economic Community during the 1980s. Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Greece presented from the beginning particular patterns of migration and migration regulation that distinguished them from North-Western Europe (Baldwin-Edwards 1997; King et al. 1997; Arango and Finotelli 2009). The “Mediterranean model of immigration” (King et al. 1997) is characterized by a predominance of labour and family migration, a scarcity of asylum seekers, illegality as an endemic feature, and the combination of restrictive admission and citizenship policies with frequent amnesties. Migration to Southern Europe is closely related to its colonial past, linked to former African and Latin American colonies, and to the opening up of Central and Eastern Europe. Similarities in migration trends and policies among these countries must thus be seen in light of their common historical developments and analogous socioeconomic conditions.

The start of immigration flows caught Southern European countries unprepared, lacking immigration experience and an adequate legal framework. Southern European countries reacted by developing policies to fence off immigration and established ius sanguinis as the principle defining who belonged to the nation. Spain passed its first foreigners law in 1985, pushed by the obligations acquired with its accession to the European Economic Community. The end of the Cold War and the gradual incorporation of Central and Eastern Europe into the EU migration system brought about a sharp increase of migration from Albania and the former Soviet Union to Italy and above all to Greece in the first half of the 1990s. In that period, policymakers across Europe shared a fear of an imminent “invasion” of Central and Eastern European migrants, which stimulated the introduction of stricter control and admission measures. It was in this spirit that Greece and Italy developed their first alien laws, respectively, in 1991 and 1998.

From the mid-1980s through the 1990s, Southern Europe experienced a period of intense economic growth with substantial labour shortages in low-skilled sectors. This created a strong demand for migrant labour during a time of restructuring of the global economy, resulting in a remarkable increase of foreigners' presence in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Greece. Flows in Spain showed the most spectacular growth. The percentage of foreign population increased from 2.2 to 12.2 between 2000 and 2010, according to National Institute of Statistics figures. Despite these large flows, the issue of migration remained relatively depoliticized until recently, with foreign workers generally perceived as contributors to the national economy (except in Greece)[1].

As a result of the strong segmentation of the labour market that was characteristic of these countries, migrants were incorporated in low-status, low-paid jobs that natives tended to reject. Typically, those sectors with a strong need for low-skilled labour fell within the large informal economy of Southern European countries, estimated in 2002–2003 as 28.3 % of gross domestic product (GDP) in Greece, 26.2 % of GDP in Italy, and 22.2 % of GDP in Portugal and Spain (Schneider and Klingmair 2004). Other niches of migrant labour are closely associated with the features of the Mediterranean welfare regime, particularly the large informal market for domestic work and care-giving services, which employs primarily migrant women. Gradually, governments saw the need to regulate labour migration, with Spain being the first to introduce a scheme based on a labour market test (known as the Regimen General, as established in the 1985 Foreigners Law), followed by Greece in 1991 with its invitation scheme. Ultimately, all four countries ended up introducing a system of annual quotas for labour migrants—representing all skill levels—Italy in 1990, Spain in 1993, Greece in 2000, and Portugal in 2001. These systems were a forerunner of the current EU position that recognizes the need to open new legal ways to enter the EU given the crucial role that immigration plays in the European economy[2]. Implicitly, Southern European countries have bet on immigrants to maintain the low-productivity sectors that form the core of their economies (GonzálezEnriquez and Triandafyllidou 2009).

At a certain point, governments acknowledged that migration recruitment procedures were ineffective, as shown by the large presence of irregular migrants. To cope with the discrepancy between planned legal inflows and the actual needs of the economy they have applied regularization programmes “ex post” with a certain degree of periodicity, though governments presented them each time as exceptional “one time only” measures (Arango and Finotelli 2009, 31). Regularizations have been applied by governments of different colour, showing a considerable continuity in the policies of the main political parties in all four countries, despite rhetorical differences (González-Enriquez and Triandafyllidou 2009; Zincone 2006). However, by 2005 regularizations had become highly controversial among NorthWestern European partners who claimed that immigrants regularized in Southern Europe tended to move to Northern Europe to benefit from the generous welfare systems there (Chauvin et al. 2013). Interestingly, research shows rather the opposite effect: regularizations in Italy and Spain have “stabilized” a large part of the immigrant population (Carafagna 2002; Blangiardo 2004; Arango and Finotelli 2009; Cachón 2007)[3]. In any case, from the mid-2000s, increased European integration has put more pressure on improving migration controls, and the European Council has agreed to limit regularizations to individual and ad hoc measures.

In sum, migration policies in the Southern EU member states have primarily set out to fight illegal migration. Massive migration flows to the Mediterranean countries occurred in a period combining restrictive policies and sizeable labour demand, and this partly explains why illegal migration is so predominant[4]. The four Southern European countries followed a similar path of policymaking: starting with the lack of an adequate legal framework for the influx of migrants, soon after adopting strict control measures, then establishing measures to manage migrant labour, and subsequently resorting to regularizations to “repair” ex post the poorly functioning recruitment procedures.

Due to the peculiarities of the Mediterranean model of migration, illegal migration poses other challenges to Southern European countries than to North-Western European ones. Illegal migration in Southern Europe is mainly a result of visaoverstaying or losing work permits, not illegally entering the country (Monzini et al. 2006; Arango and Finotelli 2009). Southern European policymakers are thus mainly concerned with how to handle large concentrations of irregular migrants while at the same time curtailing the shadow economy and collecting taxes and social security contributions. From this perspective, regularization programmes seem to be win-win opportunities that transform irregular migrants into regular ones, making them taxpayers and social-security contributors. However, it leaves unresolved the question of how to prevent regular migrants from falling into irregularity when they have to renew their temporary residence permits and cannot prove they hold a formal job. It also fails to tackle the informal economy, which created and reproduces the South European irregular migration system.

  • [1] Data from the European Social Survey between 2002 and 2008 show that while Southern Europeans are reticent towards the entry of “many” immigrants they generally acknowledge that immigrants bring about positive consequences for their national economies (Moreno Fuentes and Bruquetas-Callejo 2011, 162–165).
  • [2] In 2000, EU Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs Antonio Vitorino declared that 'new legal ways for immigrants to enter the EU' were needed because 'the zero immigration policies of the past 25 years are not working' (cit. in Martin et al. 2006, 74–75).
  • [3] In fact, an Italian study observed that Eastern European citizens such as Moldavians and Ukrainians who lived in Italy had obtained their visas in Germany (Colombo and Sciortino 2004).
  • [4] Arango (2005) summarizes the factors involved in the “equation of irregularity” as intensive flows, restrictive regulations, attractiveness of the informal economy, geographical proximity, weakness of controls, and effectiveness of smuggling activities.
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