November 30, 2023 | Rome, Italy

The end of tolerance

By |2018-03-21T18:35:57+01:00March 1st, 2009|Essays|
Many immigrants headed from Libya to Italy end up on Lampedusa.

n a commuter train that runs between Venice and Padua, a prankster has defaced a standard-issue sign about riding without a ticket. The sign calls for a €50 fine. A penned-on addition reads, “Unless you’re a nigger or a gypsy, then it’s free.”

Graffiti might have originated in Italy, but this spells trouble. Resentment toward non-Italian workers is soaring, particularly in northern Italy. Several times in the last 12 months rage has turned to violence.

In September, Abdul William Guibre, a native of Burkina Faso, was brutally beaten after caught stealing cookies from a Milan coffee shop on a dare. The father-and-son owners of the bar struck him with an iron bar while shouting racial insults. The 19-year-old known as “Abba” died seven hours later.

A month before, thugs had racially assaulted Assuna Benvindo Muteba, a 24-year-old economics student in Genoa. “You know you stink, nigger?” said one of the attackers. “Go back to Africa,” said another. The son of a high-level Angolan government official was then knocked to the ground, where he was kicked and punched. Muteba was luckier than Abba. He lived.

On February 1, Sing Navte, a 35-year-old immigrant of Indian origin was set on fire in the Nettuno train station south of Rome, suffering third degree burns over 40 percent of his body. He’d left Rome behind after losing his spot in a homeless shelter. Three teenaged assailants, allegedly high, said they did it for the thrill. Italian President Giorgio Napolitano called the Nettuno incident the latest in a series of “horrifying episodes” that represented “alarming symptoms of a widespread trend that is unfortunately growing.”

Trend is a troubling word. Since Italy once bore fascism on the far right and the Red Brigades on the far left, both of which yielded years of extremist violence, the violent surge, albeit limited, unsettles some observers. It also coincides with the electoral revival of Umberto Bossi’s Lega Nord (Northern League), which since its origin in the early 1990s has made no effort to conceal its disdain for the influx of cheaper foreign labor, which is concentrated in north.

Add the global economic crisis and fears of a dramatic rise in domestic unemployment and the prospect of incendiary consequences rises.

Most immigrants come to Italy to work, many occupying menial jobs that the post-1989 Italian middle class spurns. In the south, they work as seasonal migrants in often appalling conditions. At all levels their labor breathes life into Italy’s suffering economy. “Immigrants are the strength and freshness of the country,” Napolitano recently reminded Italians. Pope Benedict XVI also weighed in, referring to immigrants are a “resource” for development, not an “obstacle.”

Although Italians complain bitterly of widespread unemployment, an International Monetary Fund report found the alarmism overstated. In 2006 and 2007, Italy’s unemployment rate fell about 12 percent each year, now standing at less than six percent.

However wobbly in fact, the perception that illegal immigrants were stealing jobs and generating domestic crime gave Bossi’s party a huge bump in last April’s national elections. Though the League has been around since the early 1990s, massive migration began in the middle of the decade when hundreds of thousands fled collapsing Albania. Bossi and rightist leader Gianfranco Fini framed the 2002 law that governs Italy’s current immigration policy as a result. Though the League’s 2007 electoral platform promoted fiscal federalism (economic autonomy for Italy’s regions) and internal security, Bossi’s image was still linked to immigration. In regions such as the Veneto, which since World War II has evolved from poverty into wealth, the League picked up nearly 30 percent of vote. In some towns the percentages were even higher.

As a result, the League has direct political clout for the first time. Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, a leading Northern League official, has spearheaded legislation directed at barring unwanted foreigners. Under his watch, a facility on the island of Lampedusa near Libya has been transformed into an immigrant detention and expulsion center. Many migrants use Libya as a departure point for Italy, with some 32,000 believed to have landed on the island way-station in 2008.

Overcrowding in Lampedusa facility led to a riot and fire in mid-February that left 40 police and immigrants injured. At the time, officials said a camp intended for 850 people contained a population of 1,800, mostly Tunisians awaiting deportation.

Maroni also demanded the fingerprinting of Roma, or Gypsy, children, as part of what he called an anti-crime measure. UNICEF and Italian Jewish groups denounced the proposal. Council of Europe Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg generated a diplomatic row when he said Italian immigration policy was short on “human rights and humanitarian principles” and could generate further xenophobia: “The concern about security cannot be the only basis for the immigration policy.”

In February, the Italian Senate approved a provocative Northern League-backed national security bill that would tax non-EU citizens seeking to obtain or renew Italian residency permits (permesso di soggiorno). Strapped immigrants (and others) would need to come up with between €50 and €240, depending on the kind of permit.

More incendiary was a clause demanding that doctors be compelled to report illegal immigrants or face fines. Congo-born Jean-Leonard Touadi, Italy’s only black parliamentarian, immediately warned of a return to “Facist-era snooping.” Some Italian hospitals and clinics already have ad hoc posters reassuring immigrants that their confidentiality won’t be breached if they seek care. It was unclear how many doctors would comply if the measure passed the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies.

Before the Senate vote, Touadi told the BBC that a “culture of rejection, exclusion [was] beginning to embed itself in Italian society.”

League Senate minority leader Federico Bricolo certainly did nothing to dispel Touadi’s concerns. “You are with the foreigners, you defend foreigners and you’re against Italians,” he told left-wing hecklers. “You can call us xenophobic all you like, it only wins us more votes.”

Maroni’s newfound clout came into play in mid-February, following three rapes blamed sketchily on Eastern Europeans and North Africans. Within days, the Berlusconi government rushed through a decree mandating life sentences for suspects convicted of raping minors or causing lethal injury during a sexual attack. More controversially, it called for the creation of civilian watch squads, or patrols, that would watch for suspicious behavior and report it local authorities.

Retired police or soldiers would be first in line to join these street militias, which Maroni said would not by armed but carry mobile phones and radios “for reporting things to security forces.” Just what kinds of “things” they were expected to report, and under what circumstances, remained ill-defined.

THE IMMIGRATION controversy has been manipulated since the end of the Cold War. The Northern League long ago chose to put a canny spin on intolerance by shifting the focus from the famously unproductive south, the mezzogiorno, or midday, which for decades was blamed for exporting crime and a culture of indolence, to foreign intrusions.

Before the 2007 election, it played up several high-profile rapes and murders in which the suspects were portrayed as plundering immigrants, particularly from Albania and Romania. One League poster bore the face of an American Indian, symbolically placing 21st century Italians in the place of the indigenous tribes of the late 1800s, uprooted from their land, tradition and families, and herded into “reservations” by tides of mauling newcomers.

Tasteless remarks and racial profiling has become commonplace. Days before Christmas, Mario Borghezio, a League member of the EU parliament, mocked a Genoa priest’s decision to include a mosque and a minaret in a church crèche in a gesture of religious tolerance. “The only thing missing was the suicide bomber ready to blow up Christ’s manger,” said Borghezio.

But the fear isn’t grounded in fact. Violent crime is on the wane in Italy. It’s petty crime that’s rising. According to police statistics from central Italy, pickpocketing, purse snatching and muggings all posted double-digit rises in 2006. Much of that is irrationally blamed on the immigrant population.

Fragile Italy, which until the 1970s was better known for its emigrant tides, was simply unprepared to adapt to the influx. The country has the lowest birth rate in Europe and among the most sluggish economies in the Eurozone. Its citizens subsidize one of Europe’s most comprehensive welfare states. Legal foreign residents rose 17 percent in 2007 to reach 3.4 million, according to Italian government statistics reported in The New York Times. That’s six percent of the population.

Proportionally, however, the number is considerably lower than other European countries including France and the Netherlands.

Prejudice against the Rom or gypsy population, long depicted as thieves and swindlers in popular folklore, has regained its robustness, in part as a result of hyperbolic media coverage. In Naples, rumors that a Roma woman had kidnapped an Italian baby provoked a reprisal raid. Following a string of break-ins in Northern Italy last spring, Bologna’s Resto del Carlino newspaper published photos of leghisti dressed in their trademark green polo shirts and kerchiefs, pledging vigilante protection of their communities if police and carabinieri dispatched from Rome couldn’t handle the job. Meanwhile, Maroni deployed some 30,000 troops to provide auxiliary help to police in leading cities.

“To fight illegal immigration you just can’t be a do-gooder,” he said in recently, putting his zero-tolerance philosophy into a nutshell. “You have to be the bad guy, absolutely determined to enforce the law.”

Italian progressives, including Democratic Party official Roberto Di Giovan Paolo, have tended to view Maroni’s hard line not so much as intentionally wicked but as misguided. “If we really want to stop illegal immigration,” Di Giovan Paolo said in December, “we have to set up extensive cooperation and development accords … with North and sub-Saharan Africa — in other words, where these people are actually coming from. Otherwise, all we are doing is moving the problem from one place to another.” Spain, for example, began working toward such accords in 2004.

Moreover, Italy has no clear policy of reciprocity with its EU partners, a problem that plagues the entire Union. Though Italian police do issue expulsion orders against convicted immigrants (ordine di espulsione), follow-through is missing. No intra-European authority guarantees that those charged must return home to face trial, and Italian courts don’t — or can’t — deal with their numbers.

If “expelled” immigrants stay on and commit further crimes on Italian soil, incoherent jurisprudence is rarely blamed. It should be. A system that is systematically unable to indict, try and punish a convicted offender is rarely taken to task. In stark contrast, the government has increased police wiretapping powers and given authorities more time to hold suspects before they’re charged.

Though the Bossi-Fini law was intended to ensure the immediate expulsion of those caught without a legal right to be in the country, there a loophole. Those without documents may be kept in detention centers while they appeal or their expulsion is processed. This legal and physical limbo further strains the state budget. Since Italy’s jails are overcrowded, there is simply no place for detainees. In the absence of habeas corpus, swift trials, and clear extradition procedure, law enforcement bogs down. Some criminals literally walk away. Italians, already distrustful of the state, has responded by boosting parties such as the League.

But while Bossi’s party portrays the immigration problem as wasting tens of millions of Italian euros, it offers little other than economic protectionism as a salve for the nation’s perennially sluggish growth. The OECD has forecast that the ratio of non-working Italians to working ones will dramatically rise in the next few years. So far, the Northern League has offered no response on how to deal with a shrinking workforce burdened with supporting a burgeoning number of retirees.

One supremely ironic solution is immigrant labor. A 2007 government report on immigrant relations saw 42 percent of Italians praising Italy’s immigrant population. It was recognized an “economic resource for national industry,” and singled out for their willingness to take care of the elderly, once strictly within the purview of the Italian family.

THE LEAGUE’S small town success, at least in the north, depends on working class support. Interestingly, its populism appears to attract voters who once backed Italy’s Communist Party (PCI), the most powerful in Western Europe during the Cold War. At the pinnacle of its strength, in the mid-1970s, the PCI was Italy’s workers’ and labor party.

Bossi’s xenophobia appeals to some, but not all, of his loyalists. The party also got votes for reasons that have nothing to do with fear of crime and immigration. Take Giordano Milan, who runs an accounting and payroll business that processes paychecks for dozens of migrant workers in the Veneto region. He is pro-League, he says, because Bossi promised a lower tax burden for his small family-run business; something neither Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi nor his Democratic Party adversary Walter Veltroni (who has since resigned) bothered bringing up.

It’s a peculiarity of Italian political life that an anti-immigration party that first got attention as a separatist movement is now the only party pushing hard for lower taxes. As soon as Romano Prodi’s center-left coalition took office in 2006, it raised them — a move that virtually ensured its eventual collapse.

Much of Italy’s tax burden is generated by the welfare state system that Italians grudgingly accept in exchange for having some of Western Europe’s lowest salaries. The structure is based on an industrial and artisan-oriented economy in which citizens mostly maintain the same residence and job for a lifetime. Historically, the state has generously protected small businesses. This is changing, however, and the fear of being left at the mercies of the troubled market has helped drive small business owners to the League.

Some League voters are threatened by the culture of globalization. In 2006, for example, of Italy’s 240,000 marriages, 24,000 involved an Italian and a foreign resident. Statistics also put the country’s Muslim population at more than a million, 300,000 located in League strongholds Emilia Romagna and the Veneto.

League supporters also worry about the proliferation of Chinese imports, angry that larded Rome government is indifferent to their hard work and anxiety. In small towns where outsiders are regarded as more of a menace, the League defends tradition; much the way the Fascist party did in its early nationalist phase.

Larger cities are more resistant. Eighteen months ago, Venice hosted a high-profile art show at the Palazzo Ducale titled “Venice and Islam.” Meanwhile, in the nearby town of Montegrotto Terme, Mayor Luca Claudio put up a sign sarcastically advising his townsmen to emigrate. Claudio, who is a member of the rightist Alleanza Nazionale, was doing no more than repeating an old northern Italian theme: that Italians would be better off as immigrants in a foreign land than as Italians in Italy.

One thing is certain: Italian voters are weary of the same faces in Rome. Berlusconi’s term as prime minister is likely to be his last. Italy’s political culture begs for renewal and Bossi continues playing his cards diligently. Though the League may unsettle those accustomed to a tolerant, multi-ethnic culture, it is gradually attracting centrist voters (as diehard French rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen did briefly in 2000).

At the same time, the real opportunity for political renewal may lie in an improbable place, immigrants. An Italian immigrant party may present that opportunity. If such a party were created and attracted sufficient voters to enter a governing coalition, the definition of old guard would be changed forever. Such a striking event is at the very least unlikely.

But a decade ago so was an American presidency led by a man named Obama.

About the Author:

Henry Baker hails from Louisville, Kentucky, though he's equally comfortable with Baltimore's semi-southern charm. He served in the Peace Corps in Macedonia for two years but then yielded to the pull of southern Europe and Italy, where he studied in Bologna. He now lives in Milan but feels attached to the Veneto (preferably not independent). He has freelanced for the Baltimore Sun, the Baltimore City Paper, and a slew of other independent publications that pre-date the Web.