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Wednesday, 19 April, 2000, 21:09 GMT 22:09 UK
Italy: Immigration or extinction
Joanne Gilhooly in Badolato, southern Italy
The question of immigration in Europe is always controversial.
However, what if immigration were to be seen not as a problem to be solved, but as the solution to one of Europe's biggest dilemmas - how to replenish a shrinking population?
In Italy, birth rates are among the lowest on the continent.
The community of Badolato, in particular, has been more than happy to welcome asylum seekers as saviours.
It is a picture-perfect hill top town in southern Italy.
It is beautiful and quiet - in fact, it is rather too quiet and that is because most of its inhabitants have left.
A dying village
Those who remain will tell you that Badolato is dying.
Seven thousand people used to live in the town. Now that figure is closer to 400.
Most of the young have fled unemployment - a feature of the south - but Badolato is also a symbol of a real problem across Europe.
Birth rates are down, longevity is up. Italy has always been seen as the bastion of the big family but in fact its population is in steep decline.
Now it is feared that there will not be enough workers in the future to support the elderly who are living longer than ever before.
For 10,000 years, the fortress town had repelled foreigners. Two years ago, they were welcomed with relief - at last some young blood was back in town.
At the beginning of 1998, hundreds of Kurds, desperate enough to leave Turkey aboard an old rust bucket, were rescued off the southern coastline.
Around 400 mostly young men were brought to this village. The warm reception they found turned Badolato into a cause celebre.
Television crews arrived and the talk was of a town being brought to life again by asylum seekers.
Could this be the answer for Italy's other dying cities?
Daniela Trapasso of the Italian Council for Refugees says she was surprised and impressed by the welcome the asylum seekers received.
"I thought the people from the village will be scared of them but it was not like this," she recalls
"I was very emotional when I saw Italian people give food, bread and oil to the Kurdish neighbours."
Two years later, that warmth has not diminished.
Sitting around the piazza in weak spring sunshine, the old people are happy to talk about their visitors.
"It's lovely to have them around," they tell me.
"They never give us any problem and if there is something we can give them, we give it to them.
"We don't understand them and they don't understand us but they are good, and the more people we have around the better it is for everyone."
The few who do not want them here are given short shrift.
The Kurds were housed in the town's long-abandoned school.
However, most of the original group have found work in Germany or elsewhere.
Nedim Palabiyik is one of the 50 or so who remain and they are frustrated.
"The Italian people are very friendly," he says.
"Everything so far has been quite good, but what will happen to us in the future I just don't know."
The promised funds from the government for housing and start-up businesses to encourage them to stay have never arrived.
The Badolato experiment, says Daniela Trapasso, is in bureaucratic limbo.
"A lot of people came here," she says.
"A lot of promises have been made but we have been waiting for this money for two years.
"This is a big problem. If you talk with our government they will tell you - 'Ah yes! Badolato! - a very good experience. We must learn from Badolato. There, there is civilisation.'
"But then - nothing."
Yet the statistics are stark: too few people across Italy are having families.
A recent UN report gave worse projections for Italy than Italian experts themselves, sounding an SOS in Rome - in the next 50 years the population is expected to shrink from 57 million to 41 million.
Without "replacement migration" as it is called, the retirement age would have to be raised to 77 to maintain the ratio of four workers to every pensioner.
The president of the Rome-based Eurispes Research agency, Gian Maria Fara, has watched the birth rate halve since the 1960s.
It is not good enough, he says, for the government just to turn a blind eye to illegal immigration.
"This will cause political problems but even the highest authorities of the Italian economy say that Italy needs at least 200,000 immigrants just to keep the status quo."
There are analysts who believe that the crisis is exaggerated.
They say that there have been periods of low reproduction before which have not caused great social or economic disruption.
Back in Badolato, there is good news according to Mayor Gerardo Mannello: the money to restore 20 houses for the Kurds has finally arrived.
He believes that the government now understands the importance of immigrants in Italy and he is confident that soon they will be seen as essential to the economy - especially in the South.
For now, there are about 20 children - Italian and Kurdish - left in Badolato.
Cycling around the lanes and kicking a football around in the evening, they bring the piazza some much-needed life.
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