While many Europeans would prefer to severely limit the number of immigrants whom they claim tap into welfare benefits and steal jobs, others, especially employers in certain sectors, view them as a blessing.
In most European countries, birth rates are dropping and businesses lack skilled labor. With only 1.57 babies born per woman in the European Union in 2011, the bloc’s population is aging fast.
Immigrants, on the other hand, are having babies, especially in Prato, an Italian industrial town near the western coast of Italy on the Mediterranean.
“In Prato’s hospital, the nursery is considered the immigrants’ unit,” said Missimo Bressan, Italian anthropologist at the local research institute IRIS.
Prato started to attract a large number of Chinese immigrants during the 1990s, when the growing textile and fashion industry was looking for workers for its factories. Today, in the city of around 190,000 residents, 34,000 are immigrants, and there is an even larger number of unregistered workers.
And a growing number of them no longer represent cheap labor but a thriving middle class.
“The beginning years were difficult for us,” said 21-year old Xiao Liao, who came to Prato with her family when she was just six years old. Her father started to work in one of the textile factories, a position that was difficult to fill by locals because of the low pay and long hours. “I grew up with racism,” she added. “But today, I can fight back.”
Ms. Liao, who graduated from high school, works as a mediator between newly arriving Chinese citizens and locals at Prato immigration center and hospital. “It’s not enough to translate Chinese into Italian,” she said. “Most of the time, you have to explain different cultural patterns of thinking.”
Ms. Liao proudly points out that she is one of many Chinese immigrants now paying taxes, which in turn increases the state’s tax income and public pension funds.
Many textile factories in Prato persuaded foreign workers to work in what became known as “pronto-moda" production, or fast and inexpensive. While many producers of fashionwear were forced to close down in the wake of the financial crisis in 2008, pronto-moda factories survived.
A section of Prato’s city center, Macrolotto Zero, has developed into a sort of Chinatown, with Chinese restaurants, fashion stores and hairdressers. The area is also known for violence and theft against Chinese immigrants, who are often referred to by Italian gangs as “walking ATMs”, because they often carry large amount of cash with them.
But immigrants like Ms. Liao are an example of the many positive effects immigration has on Europe.
A recent effort by the local theater Compost in Prato distributed 10,000 pamphlets among residents showing a face of a man or woman of different nationalities. “Referring to Shakespeare, who said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we want to say: The future is in the eye of the beholder,” said director Cristina Pezzoli. Last year, she organized a theater piece, in which she united Chinese and Italian entrepreneurs with politicians and young people.
The goal of the play was to show what would happen if all Chinese people would leave Prato from one day to another – as many demand on their banners “Chinese leave Prato now.”
Apart from losing a huge portion of its population, the city could go bankrupt.