The exodus is being fueled by rising unemployment, near-zero economic growth, and political paralysis – Italy has been unable to form a government since inconclusive elections in February, creating even deeper uncertainty for the country’s future.
The number of Italians who have emigrated rose 30 percent between 2011 and 2012, from 60,000 to 79,000, according to figures published last week. There was a particularly sharp increase in the number of Italians ages 20 to 40 who are forging new lives abroad.
The most popular destination was Germany, followed by Switzerland, and then Britain.
Italy has been a country of emigration since the 19th century. “For decades, emigration constituted a safety valve for grave economic and social difficulties at home,” the president of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano, has said.
A better quality of life
One of the historic high points of the exodus was between 1876 and 1915, when a staggering 14 million Italians left the country to live abroad. There was another spike between the end of World War II and 1976, when 7.4 million Italians left for Canada, Argentina, and Australia.
In recent years, however, the profile of emigrants has changed dramatically. In the decades after World War II, impoverished Italians clutching cardboard suitcases headed to the coal mines of Belgium and the factories of the Ruhr district.
These days they are more likely to be managers, not manual laborers: highly qualified graduates who take their résumés and professional certificates with them as they fly north.
Grazia Bonsignore, a translator and teacher, moved with her husband and young daughter from Rome to Zurich two years ago. The transfer was initially difficult – not least because of the difficulties of learning Swiss German – but the family now have few regrets about moving.
“In Rome, no matter how much we both worked, the money was never enough,” says Ms. Bonsignore. “Rome is a very expensive city and, because we didn't own an apartment like the majority of the people do, we paid a lot of rent."
“In Zurich, we now earn enough money to cover the rent, expenses, insurance, and holidays.”
It is not just the wages and job opportunities that are better on the other side of the Alps. Switzerland and Germany function much better than dysfunctional Italy, with its potholed roads, Byzantine bureaucracy, and shabby public transport.
“The quality of life is a lot higher,” says Bonsignore. “Flavia [their daughter] can walk alone to kindergarten, the public tram system is always punctual, there is hardly any bureaucracy, and there are many playgrounds and lots of parks.”
It is not just Italians flocking north – Greeks, Spaniards, and Portuguese are also heading to Germany, in particular, as the economies of the Mediterranean rim buckle under recession and austerity measures.
In Italy, new figures released this month showed that there are now nearly 6 million people without jobs, out of a population of around 60 million.
There has been a dramatic rise in the number of southern Europeans signing up for German language courses, statistics show. Last year, more than 9,000 Spaniards, 4,700 Italians, and more than 2,000 Greeks took language classes offered by the Goethe Institute, which promotes German language and culture.
The new migrants have enjoyed a positive portrayal in the German media. A documentary on southern European migrants was titled "Dr. Gastarbeiter" – comparing the highly qualified new arrivals to the low-skilled guest workers, or Gastarbeiter, who helped power Germany’s postwar economic revival.
Italian emigrants encountered discrimination and racism when they migrated around the world a century ago.
In some places, they were derisively known as “macaroni.” In countries like France and Belgium, there were riots and mob lynches, orchestrated by locals who feared the newcomers would take their jobs.
There are lingering remnants of that today. “In Germany, there’s still the stereotype of the Italian immigrant – the pizzamaker, the bricklayer,” said Ludovica Diligu, a fashion designer from Milan who moved to Berlin a few years ago with her husband and four children.
“In reality it is no longer like that. There’s a whole generation here of [Italian] artists, designers, and other professionals who have achieved success,” she told Corriere della Sera newspaper this month.
Home again, home again?
Historically, huge numbers of Italians who emigrated put down roots and stayed for good, never returning to their native land. As a result, there are now as many as 70 million people of Italian heritage around the world, from the United States and South America to Australia, according to the National Museum of Emigration in Rome.
Whether this new generation of emigrants will stay away forever, or return to Italy when its economic prospects brighten, remains to be seen.
In chilly Zurich, Grazia Bonsignore certainly plans to return to Italy. “I'm still angry that in order to have a better life we had to leave Rome. It would have been better to have all that we have here in Zurich, back in Rome, and not have to deal with another culture."
“Swiss people are very reserved. To become friends with them, it can take more than two years. And I miss the blue skies of Rome.”