It has been argued, and it is
still argued, not without reason, that migrants influence indirectly (since
they are not in the majority of cases active electorate) the choices, conduct
and decisions of politics in a large part of the countries of the European
Union. Certainly the same phenomenon is observed in other parts of the world,
but our attention is focused on the old Continent. Various theories have been
elaborated on the issue, more or less pertinent, some of great cultural value,
the most profound reasons have been researched, and more, we will try to
examine an aspect that derives from the contact between human beings and how it
is perceived by the people. And then how this contact generates mistrust,
hostility, fears and the latter as they reverberate on electoral behavior,
fueling or favoring nationalist, sovereign and populist policies. A different
perspective to explain in a simple way how the presence, true or feared, of
migrants can influence – despite themselves – the political choices of the host
The opportunity for a reflection on the point is offered to us by the publication of a study by the Cattaneo Institute of Bologna which elaborated the research and which underlines how the data are often presented very often with a lack of balance and objectivity to the point that on the migratory phenomenon the “perceptions counted more than the concrete data”. The study focuses on the Italian case, but from the news that comes from other European countries, it is observed that the behavior does not appear dissimilar. In March 2018, the Eurostat statistical agency published an analysis on the incidence of migrants compared to the total population of the various EU states. A few months later, an investigation by the US research firm Pew Research Center highlighted the frequency of hostile attitudes towards foreigners and religious minorities in Western Europe. Respondents were given an “intolerance” score of zero to 10, based on the answers given on a sample of 22 questions. 38% of Italians recorded a score between 5 and 10, the highest level among the 15 states considered by the report. In Sweden, it did not go beyond 8%, the lowest average on a continental scale. As a result, there is an asymmetry in different EU countries between the number of migrants and discriminatory attitudes: the less foreigners there are, the more cases of discrimination and xenophobic tensions increase. Or vice versa, as in the case of Sweden, a greater presence of migrants can lead to a more widespread acceptance of the phenomenon. Among the most striking cases is that of Hungary where registered foreigners do not reach 1.6% of the population (about 160 thousand people out of 9.7 million), but over 80% of its citizens declare “negative feelings »Towards immigration. A case similar to that of countries such as Bulgaria (where only 15% of citizens say they feel “at ease” with foreigners, despite representing 2% of the population) or areas like eastern Germany where the presence of migrants it is poor but the feeling of unease is high.
Is there an explanation for all this? It seems so: a partial or distorted perception of the phenomenon. A report from the Cattaneo Institute last August showed that European citizens tend to overestimate the incidence of migrants compared to their population: the interviewees were convinced that non-European citizens present in their respective countries reached 17.7% of the total, against a found share of just 6.7%. An oversight that, in the case of Italy, produces a gap of 17.5 percentage points between feelings and reality: the Italians interviewed estimated that migrants are equal to 25% of the population, when the real share stops at 7%. There is more. Discriminatory impulses are triggered even without (or despite) effective knowledge of the phenomenon and aggregate data, an attitude that explains the increase in hostilities and prejudicial barriers due to “motivational rather than rational” factors: the so-called realistic conflict, that is the tendency to discriminate against those who are seen as a “competitor” with respect to our conditions.
Certainly the phases of economic instability end up accentuating the tendency to create conflicts, even more so if induced by media and political hammering. in realistic or real conflict, disadvantaged groups or migrants tend to be discriminated against, because they are considered competitive (moreover incorrect) as a group that can worsen the situation of citizens ». The gap between numbers and perception recorded in Italians shows that an oriented narrative (“the invasion of migrants”) can alter the ability to analyze the problem, in turn fueling the prejudices gained on the subject, to the point that, those who are more easily seduced by the narrative, tends to “see” 7% more of the migrants, even compared to the average-error of evaluation of the compatriots. But how heavy is the projection of a distorted image of the reality of the migratory phenomenon in Italy, especially when compared with the other countries of the European Union? To answer this question, the Cattaneo Institute analyzed the data provided by the Eurobarometer on the presence of immigrants estimated by citizens in each of the EU Member States.
Between poor knowledge and wrong perception The first data that emerges is that, in the whole European context, roughly a third of respondents (31.5%) cannot provide an answer on the percentage of immigrants living in their countries. In some cases (Bulgaria, Portugal, Malta and Spain) the percentage of those who cannot answer exceeds abundantly 50%, in 27% it is below the European average. The picture that emerges from these first data signals first of all a high level of uncertainty among citizens about the extent of the migratory phenomenon in Europe. The survey shows that European citizens clearly overestimate the percentage of immigrants present in their countries: compared to 7.2% of non-EU immigrants “actually” present in European states, respondents estimate 16.7% of them. In Italy the figure is more significant: Italian respondents are those who show a greater gap (in percentage points) between the percentage of non-EU immigrants actually present in Italy (7%) and the estimated, or perceived, equal to 25% , placing the error of perception committed by the Italians in the highest place among all the countries of the European Union (+17.4 percentage points). The other countries that show a “perceptual error” slightly lower than the Italian one are Portugal (+14.6 percentage points), Spain (+14.4 p.p.) and the United Kingdom (+12.8 p.p.). On the contrary, the difference between the percentage of “real” and “perceived” immigrants is minimal in the Nordic countries (Sweden +0.3; Denmark +2.2; Finland +2.6) and in some central European countries- Eastern (Estonia -1.1; Croatia +0.1). The perception errors on immigration in Europe therefore indicate the existence of a lack of public information on this issue. However, the incorrect estimate on the presence of immigrants, in addition to poor information, could also derive from prejudices – rooted in the voters – which condition their assessment ex ante. In short, those who, in principle, have an unfavorable position towards immigrants could be induced to magnify the scope of the phenomenon or to justify their attitude by virtue of a distorted perception of the issue. The NIM index developed by the Pew Research Center, which measures the degree of nationalist, anti-immigrant and anti-religious minority sentiment in 15 European countries, also confirms that there is a positive relationship between the incorrect perception of the migratory phenomenon and the attitude towards immigration. In other words, as hostility towards immigrants increases, the error in assessing the presence of immigrants in your country also increases. It is clear that the issue of “perceptual error” in reference to the migratory phenomenon does not derive only from a problem of little or little information, but from different “visions” of the world that inevitably condition their observation In Italy based on the geographical areas of belonging, the estimate on the presence of immigrants reveals a rather clear difference between residents in the north and those in the center-south. The former estimate an immigration level of around 20%, while in other areas the percentage of immigrants is indicated, on average, around 26%, with a difference of 6 percentage points between north and south. The examination of the data shows that the distance between the real and estimated data is greater where the presence of immigrants is less (in the south, less than 5% of the population). On the contrary, the gap between reality and perception is more contained in the northern regions, where the percentage of immigrants – corresponding to about 10% of the population – tends to be higher. Is it possible that errors in the perception of the migratory phenomenon in Italy have significant consequences on the attitudes of Italians towards immigrants and their impact on society? A significant response is obtained from the comparison between Italian and European respondents on three specific issues: 1) the relationship between immigrants and crime; 2) the hypothesis that immigrants reduce the employment opportunities of Italians; 3) the weight or contribution of immigrants on the sustainability of national welfare. On all three issues, the opinion of Italians is decidedly more negative towards immigration and their possible benefits for the economy or society. Compared to a European average of 57%, Italian respondents who believe that immigrants worsen the crime situation represent 74% of the entire sample, with a difference of 17 percentage points. Similarly, Italians who think that higher immigration leads to a reduction in employment for residents in Italy corresponds to 58% of the total, while the European average stops below 41%, with a difference of always 17 points percentages. A vision and a perspective that will not fail to influence the composition of parliamentary political representation. The main implication of this result is clear: if it is true that values are the key element in understanding the way people relate to the migratory phenomenon, it is plausible then to hypothesize that the electoral success of a party that has invested heavily in immigration issues – may depend significantly on the party’s ability to give voice and visibility to those existential principles, to those values which more than others favor critical, if not hostile, attitudes towards migrants. It also appears that value elements, such as real existential principles, do not easily suffer from short variabilities; they represent deeper aspects of the individual structure of attitudes and opinions. This suggests that these are more structural features of a part of Italian citizens, moreover in line with the consensus expressed in the past towards political groupings that had supported restrictive policies towards immigration, perhaps in less lively or spectacular ways. Attitudes that are likely to be well taken into account, even for the future.