Many immigrants, legal and illegal, are making a positive contribution and, historically, Italians are racially tolerant (if we disregard North/South animosities) but the Gypsy and African immigrants have got a lot of Italians up in arms over their high level of criminal and antisocial behaviour. Like most Western governments, however, the Italian government feels unable to exclude just those particular groups so applies restrictive measures to all immigrants

Italy’s centre-right government has taken a tough stance on immigration, but studies show that foreign workers are playing a growing role not just in providing cheap labour but also as entrepreneurs setting up their own businesses.

According to a report by Caritas/Migrantes, a Catholic organisation, there are almost 4m foreigners living legally in Italy. By 2050, the number is projected to represent 18 per cent of the population. One out of 10 workers in Italy is born abroad and Unioncamere, a business association, estimates that they produce over 9 per cent of gross domestic product.

“A restrictive immigration policy, like the one carried out by our government, is lowering the number of foreign workers and also has the involuntary effect of removing the more qualified ones. The country is trapped in a spiral of strong restrictions, ‘bad’ immigration and prejudice,” economists Paolo Giordani and Michele Ruta wrote for La Voce, a website.

A recent prize ceremony for entrepreneurial immigrants in Italy, hosted by MoneyGram, a US-based money transfer company, featured among its finalists: Marius Tiberius, a Romanian running a wholesale food company; Ivan Cruscov from Bulgaria, for his iron laboratory; Dava Gjoka, an Albanian heading a social co-operative for foreigners; and fashion designer Margarita Perea Sanchez from Colombia.

All of the finalists live in Italy and present a new face of immigration, which is more often characterised by the reports of criminality among foreigners seized upon by extremist politicians. They want to be called “New Italians” not immigrants, and ask for an active role in society, starting from the right to vote in local elections.

There are an estimated 165,000 businesses run by foreign entrepreneurs in Italy. The number has tripled since 2003, making one out of 37 registered and active companies in Italy foreign-owned. Moroccans, Romanians and Chinese are the most active, representing almost 45 per cent of all foreign entrepreneurs.

Over a fifth of foreign-run companies are based in the prosperous region of Lombardy, even though this area is in the heartland of the right-wing Northern League, whose xenophobic tendencies are influential in the centre-right coalition government. The League recently proposed establishing northern dialect tests for school teachers in the north in order to reduce the high number of teachers coming from the south. [The writer has mentioned this to indicate that Italians are generally intolerant, and there is no doubt about the vast contempt most Northern Italians have towards Southern Italians, but the measures proposed by the “Lega Nord per l’Indipendenza della Padania” are not generally supported]

“Immigrant entrepreneurs have an edge over Italians, who see the [financial] crisis as an insurmountable obstacle. They have a different mentality and approach. They fight for the future, while we [Italians] are anchored to the past and stuck in traditional schemes”, said Massimo Canovi, a MoneyGram director.

The 2009 winner of the MoneyGram award was Khawatmi Radwan, founder of Hirux International, an electric appliance exporter. From Aleppo in Syria, Mr Radwan has been in Italy since the age of 17 and his Milan-based company has an annual turnover of €60m ($85m, £52m). “Foreign-owned companies always need to be a step ahead, they are subject to more inspections than Italian ones and must invest in innovation,” said Mr Radwan.