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Unlike Salvini, Italians Still Believe in Welcoming Strangers

A new survey of Italian attitudes to migration and refugees finds more ideological diversity than commonly assumed. Economist and researcher Tim Dixon unpacks findings that show more nuances than the populism dominating headlines.

Written by Tim Dixon Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
ROME, ITALY - JULY 27: People show their hands painted red to protest against anti-immigration policies implemented by Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini, on July 27, 2018 in Rome, Italy. Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

Support for Italy’s Matteo Salvini may be rising, but his dehumanizing vision of migrants represents only a minority of Italians. While international observers are right to be anxious when Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister quotes wartime fascist leader Benito Mussolini, the attitudes of Italians towards migrants and migration are far more nuanced than those of its populist government.

Far more Italians believe in the principle of welcoming the stranger and showing compassion, but they also reject a vision of open borders. They believe the net effects of immigration, like globalization, have been negative. Many are deeply worried about the job prospects for young Italians.

These are some of the top-line conclusions from a new study released this week, from More in Common, in partnership with the Social Change Initiative and Ipsos in Italy. It is one of the most comprehensive surveys of Italian attitudes to migration and refugees ever undertaken.

To understand the landscape of opinion, our segmentation analysis identified seven opinion segments, along a spectrum of open to closed values, which split into one-quarter “open” values, one-quarter “closed” and one-half in “middle” groups.


There are two distinct “open” values groups (28 percent). The Italian Cosmopolitans (12 percent, much smaller than in northern European countries) have a modern, urban and secular sense of identity. The Catholic Humanitarians (16 percent) have traditional humanitarian values shaped by Catholic faith; far from being consistent left voters, they are the second strongest supporters of the centre-right Forza Italia, comprising one in four of that party’s supporters.

There are also two “closed” values groups (24 percent). The Hostile Nationalists (7 percent) hold negative views of migrants themselves, while the Cultural Defenders (17 percent) worry about the loss of Italian identity and a clash of cultural values (with Muslims especially). Asked whether immigrants generally make efforts to integrate, 75 percent of Cultural Defenders say no (and just four percent yes), compared to an overall no/yes majority of 44-29 percent.

There are three middle groups whose views are more up for grabs (48 percent). The Disengaged Moderates (19 percent) possess a “fellow feeling” for newcomers whom they see as people like them, struggling against a broken system; they only engage weakly in these issues, but lean towards open values. The two other middle groups lean towards closed values, but not consistently. The Security Concerned (12 percent) often think of migrants through the lens of the threats of increased risks of crime and terrorism, and the Left Behind (17 percent) perceive migrants as competitors for jobs and public services.

The Disengaged Moderates (19 percent) possess a ‘fellow feeling’ for newcomers whom they see as people like them, struggling against a broken system; they only engage weakly in these issues, but lean towards open values.

Mapping the views of these segments on specific issues to their underlying values provides rich insights. Compared to other Europeans, Italians have more distinctive segments and more diversity of opinion among each group. Compared to Americans, they are less tribal. There are hardcore nationalists who support refugees, cosmopolitans who want Italians-first labor laws and conservative Catholics who are at ease with Muslims. The degree of ideological diversity found in Italy is increasingly rare elsewhere.

There are hard-core nationalists who support refugees, cosmopolitans who want Italians-first labor laws and conservative Catholics who are at ease with Muslims.

One explanation for seemingly contradictory responses is that Italians seem to have one view on migration, and another view on migrants themselves. Asked to rank their feelings towards refugees on a scale of warm to cold, 41 percent of Italians have warm feelings and only 29 percent cold. Some 61 percent feel concerned about the rise of racism and discrimination; just 17 percent are not concerned.

But another sentiment is even stronger than views of migration: Italians’ sense of betrayal by their political establishment. Seventy-three percent of Italians say the traditional parties do not represent people like them. Fifty-seven percent say Italy needs a “strong leader willing to break the rules.” Little wonder the success of the two populist parties now in government.

Whether the coalition government stays together may depend on how the anti-system motivations of Five Star Movement (M5S) voters play out against the anti-migrant focus of Lega supporters. This creates a clear fault line that could open up at any point.

On issues of identity and immigration, the views of M5S supporters reflect national averages. For example, there is only a one percent divergence between 5SM supporters and Italians generally on whether Italy should welcome refugees because it has always had a culture of solidarity. In contrast, against national averages Lega supporters are almost twice as opposed (50 percent) and less than half as much in agreement (19 percent). Similarly, M5S supporters reject extreme measures to address the migration crisis, while Lega voters relish them.

Is there a way forward to counter Lega’s agenda of in-group versus out-group division? We think so. A unifying migration policy would honor the Italian tradition of welcoming the stranger; expect migrants to embrace Italian language and culture; manage the system of migration in a controlled way that gives the public a sense of confidence, and reject racism and extremism.

This is not an easy media environment to reach mainstream audiences and change the narrative – but this approach could address the concerns of the middle, and undermine Lega’s divisive agenda. Indeed, two-thirds of Italians say that refugees who “respect Italian culture and accept our laws” should be welcome in Italy, with a majority agreement in every segment of the population – even the most opposed groups. But with Salvini able to shape the public agenda, no-one should underestimate the challenge ahead.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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