Madou Koulibaly is the new face of an old Italy.
The 24-year-old, who arrived in the country from Guinea in 2018, is blazing a trail as Tuscany’s first migrant bus driver recruited as part of a drive to fill labor gaps with foreign workers. He was more surprised than anyone.
“I said, a bus? No, I cannot drive a bus,” he recalled. “I have never seen an African drive a bus in Italy, especially an African who’s arrived on a boat!”
Koulibaly is feeling the more welcoming front of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s contrasting immigration plans.
Meloni, who rose to power in October last year on a staunchly nationalist agenda, has captured global headlines with her vows to clamp down on unauthorized arrivals from North Africa with harsher immigration laws, restrictions on sea rescue charities and plans to build migrant reception camps in Albania.
At the same time, though, she’s throwing open the door to hundreds of thousands of migrants to work in Italy legally in an effort to plug yawning labour gaps in the country, which has one of the world’s oldest and most rapidly shrinking populations.
By 2050, Italy will have almost 5 million fewer people, and more than a third of them will be over 65, national statistics office Istat predicts. Younger blood is badly needed in a host of industries, from construction and tourism to agriculture.
Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, who signed a three-year deal with Tunisia in October that simplified visa and residence permit procedures for up to 4,000 Tunisians per year, says the government is not opposed to immigration per se.
“We want to choose who enters Italy and Europe, and not leave the choice to traffickers,” he told parliament on Nov. 21.
Giuliano Cazzola, a labor market expert and former conservative lawmaker, said economic and demographic realities were tempering the government’s anti-immigration stance.
“I am absolutely convinced that immigration is the easiest tool to repopulate Italy,” he added. “A baby who is born today will enter the labour market in 20 years’ time, whereas someone who arrives here is 20 and can be put to work immediately.”
Italy is not alone in wrestling with unfolding demographic and labour crises, with nations from Britain and Canada to Japan contending with similar problems, though its situation is among the most acute.
Meloni’s balancing act echoes that of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who has launched drives to “Stop the Boats” bringing undocumented migrants to UK shores while presiding over record annual net numbers of arrivals.