6,000 ghost towns: Italy's answer to migrant crisis?

Migrant path after Europe arrival 'fraught with obstacles'
Migrant path after Europe arrival 'fraught with obstacles'

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Migrant path after Europe arrival 'fraught with obstacles' 04:41

Story highlights

  • Silvia Marchetti: Italy is overflowing with migrants -- some 170,000 landed in Italy last year
  • Migrant labor can help revamp Italy's sluggish economy, she argues
  • Housing migrants in abandoned villages would give them a place to stay and revitalize declining areas

Silvia Marchetti is a Rome-based freelance reporter and writer. She covers finance, economics, travel and culture for a wide range of media including MNI News, Newsweek and The Guardian. Silvia has a Masters degree in journalism, fluently speaks four languages and has lived abroad most of her life. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely hers.

Rome (CNN)Lampedusa used to be a tiny paradise atoll at the southernmost tip of Italy. Quiet, few people around, great holidays.

But it had the misfortune of being close to Libya. Now it's a nightmare.
Silvia Marchetti
You just have to switch on the TV to see that the island is in crisis as migrants land on a daily basis. Desperate locals have created a Facebook page: "Stop the landings in Lampedusa."
    The trouble is that not just Lampedusa, but the whole of Italy, which is overbrimming with so-called "boat people." We don't know where to put them.
    By mid-April this year 15,000 migrants had reached our shores. The number increases so fast that authorities have a hard time updating it.
    So what's the final count going to be by the end of this year?
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    A scary one, considering the rising trend underway. In 2014 a total of 170,100 migrants arrived, up from 42,925 a year earlier.
    The saddest thing is how the tragedy of those dying at sea clashes with embarrassing domestic disputes.
    Italian regions are fighting as no one wants to take in additional refugees.
    The evening news these days is flooded by desperate calls from the Italian authorities that Europe adopts a wider "burden-sharing approach" in handling the refugees.
    But Italy must do its part first. It can and should accept a reasonable share of migrants.
    Above all it's a moral issue: you cannot let migrants drown in the Mediterranean or send them back to the countries in crisis from where they've escaped, often risking their lives.
    But there's also a practical reason: migrant labor can help revamp Italy's sluggish economy after a triple-dip recession and contribute to boosting the appeal of neglected territories.
    This does not mean that Italy should be left to deal with the migrant emergency on its own. The request forwarded to Europe is indeed a reasonable one, and soon a European scheme of quotas will kick in, but first Italy needs to do its homework as we seem to have no sense of national solidarity.
    Migrant camps are concentrated in the poorer south, with Sicily alone accounting for 21%, while rich Valle D'Aosta, at the French border, had none as of February.
    Now, several families, ready to give a hand to the state, have said they are willing to host migrants in their homes.
    Yet there could be an easier solution, once Europe makes a ruling on migrant quotas.
    A good way for Italy to deal with the crisis would be to host its share of migrants in the thousands of ghost towns that dot the boot, a bit like many U.S. towns on the verge of dying out did with Latinos.
    It's hard to believe yet the peninsula has 6,000 ghost towns that have been partly or totally abandoned across time, while communities are shrinking in another 15,000 that have lost over 90% of their population.
    These villages -- many dating from pre-Roman times -- have been abandoned due to a mix of factors: pirate sacks, natural disasters such as quakes and floods, war bombings, harsh conditions and emigration to larger cities or the U.S. in search of a better life.
    They rise in spectacular locations and once had a glory -- and a local economy -- that could be recovered.
    Sure, what's left of most villages are just crumbling ruins and dusty streets covered in lush vegetation and a thorough restyle would be needed, but this could be carried out by the migrants themselves with special tax incentives for privates (or local bodies) willing to invest in the project.
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    Migrants could help to recover fields for agricultural use, open new artisan shops and boutiques, or hotels and restaurants which could have a positive impact on tourism.
    This way two targets would be met.
    One: migrants would be given a house, and a job, in exchange for their labor in bringing back these dead villages from the grave.
    They could then settle in once they had been recognized as asylum seekers -- and even apply for Italian citizenship.
    Two: a big chunk of Italy's villages, which are falling into oblivion, would be given another life.
    Surely it is better rebuild something old but existing, than build new structures or camps to house migrants.
    One could argue: but what if they escape? Or what if they steal or carry out violent acts?
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    Well, first: only asylum seekers willing to stay in Italy would be sent to the ghost towns. Police controls would work as they would in any other place, and regarding robberies -- if it's a ghost town, what is there to steal?
    Violence -- I have a migrant camp near my house where migrants are free to go anywhere they want. Local police here are busier dealing with riots inside the camps than attending to the needs of ordinary citizens.
    Also, let's not forget a crucial point: the aging of Italian population and the contribution of migrant labor to the economy. Migrant work accounts for almost 9% of Italy's GDP.
    Here migrants have taken up jobs Italians don't want to do anymore. Not just caregivers to look after old people, but also farmers.
    Immigrants are saving a big chunk of our economy. They should be looked upon as an opportunity and resource.