Page last updated at 07:22 GMT, Friday, 6 February 2009

Italy's migrants slowly integrating

Street scene in Treviso

Over the last few decades Italy has been transformed from a nation of emigrants to a target for mass immigration. The change has brought severe political and social strains. In the second part in a series from Italy, Aidan Lewis finds immigrants integrating against the odds in the northern city of Treviso.

At bus stops in Treviso there are the usual signs warning off fare-dodgers: "If you don't pay, you don't go," they announce.

But these posters, promoted by the local anti-immigrant Northern League administration, are clearly aimed at a particular audience. "If you haven't already understood," the text continues in a parody of local Italian dialect, "I'll tell you in Arabic".

An Arabic translation duly follows. There are other posters offering interpretation into French, for the city's sizeable French-speaking African community.

This is a city where the Northern League deputy mayor, the "sheriff" of Treviso Giancarlo Gentilini, is being investigated for inciting racial hatred, and has said he did not want "black, brown or grey people teaching our children".

Map of Italy

It hardly seems fertile ground for integration.

Yet the city and the surrounding region of the Veneto have some of the highest concentrations of immigrants in the country, and have won a reputation for integrating many of these relatively well.

Italy, where mass immigration only began in the 1990s, may seem mono-cultural to someone arriving from Britain or France. But with a second generation of immigrants now emerging, there are signs that this is beginning to change.

Italian children

Those who arrived as immigration was taking off have been working here for well over a decade, and have been bringing up their children as Italians.

Fatmira Musaj, 40, left Albania with her husband in 1991, the day after their wedding. She was among tens of thousands of Albanians who arrived in Italy that year, fleeing the turmoil that followed the collapse of the Communist regime.

Fatmira Musaj
Fatmira Musaj says life for immigrants has become a little easier

Fatmira has two sons, aged six and 13. Both were born and brought up in Italy, both have Italian citizenship, and both were taught Italian so they could go to local schools.

"We spoke Italian at home, and they didn't have any problem," says Fatmira, who lives in the town of Conegliano, north of Treviso. "Now they have some trouble speaking Albanian. They pronounce the words badly, like Italians."

After arriving she found employment in metal work, which she describes as "a man's job". In 2003, she set up a small welding business. Last year she and her husband opened a grocery shop that specialises in Eastern European products.

Like other immigrants here, Fatmira says has witnessed occasional hostility, and a frequent lack of openness. Initially they called the store "Balkan shop", but this seemed to scare people off, and Italian customers only started coming when she changed the name to "Euromarket".

Like others she has stories about battling the vagaries and endless delays of Italian bureaucracy.

But like others, she also says life has gradually become easier and less isolated.

"This is partly because immigrants do all kinds of work now. Not just the most humble ones, but also work in hospitals, homes, and with the elderly," she says.

Mixed marriages

People from Eastern European states are seen here as culturally closer to Italians and integrate more easily than others.

Even so, there is also evidence that other communities are slowly integrating. It is common to see groups of teenage friends of mixed race, and occasionally mixed couples.

Wang Yu
The new generation has qualifications, a degree or a diploma, and firms accept them more easily
Wang Yu, 27

There were 24,020 mixed marriages in 2006, a tenth of total marriages and an increase of 143% from a decade earlier.

Other figures pointing to more integration include a boom in immigrant entrepreneurs, and in those doing non-menial jobs.

Wang Yu, 27, says there has been an improvement since her father first arrived from China in 1987.

"It was difficult for them to find work," said Yu, who works in a bookshop, as a secretary, and as a waitress in a pizzeria, also in Conegliano.

"Now it's a bit less so because the new generation has qualifications, a degree or a diploma, and firms accept them more easily."

Abdellah Ayouguim, a Moroccan who runs an association that tries to improve links with local communities, says many of his fellow-countrymen - who until recently existed only on the very margins of Italian society - now feel Italian.

Egyptian pizza chef in Milan
Immigrants play a visible role in jobs Italians no longer tend to take

"Mentalities are changing because associations and centres are being created for integration," he says.

But he adds that such projects often are unheralded because it is "always the ugly things that are noticed."

Part of the reason for this, immigrants say, is the local strength of the Northern League, a partner in the centre-right Italian government since last April.

One of the party's most outspoken and notorious politicians is Mr Gentilini, the Treviso's deputy mayor.

He has called for a revolution "against gypsy and nomads camps" and "those who want to open mosques and Islamic centres".

His office said last month he was not speaking to the press because of the investigation.

'Controlled' immigration

The mayor, Gian Paolo Gobbo, acknowledges that there are "some immigrants who are very well integrated".

"We are not against a controlled, specific kind of immigration," he says.

"What we don't want is the clandestine [immigration], which goes hand in hand with criminality. We need to say this clearly."

Gian Paolo Gobbo
Gian Paolo Gobbo says his party is responding to citizens' concerns

Mr Gobbo stresses that there have to be strict limits on arrivals at a time when many Italians are finding it hard to get work.

Northern Italy cannot be expected "to solve all the problems of the third world," he says.

He also defends Mr Gentilini, saying that he was taking on board people's complaints about immigrants.

"The citizens come and say to us - look, there they are camping out, they don't have documents, they're doing this and that, eat, [relieve themselves] - they do what they have to maybe behind or even in front of the church."

But both in Treviso and nationally, analysts say there is often a gap between Northern League rhetoric and what the party is able or willing to implement in practice.

And while the League has drummed up the chorus of anti-immigrant sentiment, there are many in Treviso as elsewhere who try to cast immigrants in a more positive light.

Demographic problem

Just outside Treviso is the headquarters of clothing company Benetton, which has built its name partly through multi-ethnic branding.

Benetton poster, 1991
Benetton, with its multi-ethnic branding, is a major local company

As well as trying to promote itself through humanitarian projects like a micro-credit scheme in Senegal, the company has tried to engage with immigrant communities at home.

The church and the trade unions provide assistance to the hungry and the unemployed, while a range of cultural associations for immigrant communities have sprung up.

Though one local unionist caused a stir by calling for a block on further immigration because of Italy's worsening economic position, others say that is alarmist.

"Despite what the politicians or commentators might think, it's the labour market that regulates how many immigrants arrive," says Franco Lorenzon, head of the local branch of the CISL union.

"Now if people go home, the message that there's a slowdown will be understood," he argues.

Even with growth contracting, he argues, immigrant labour will continue to be crucial because of Italy's ageing population.

The labourers - evident in all walks of Italian life, from Egyptian pizza chefs to Ukrainian domestic helpers - keep an important part of the economy going, doing jobs that young Italian are no longer prepared to do.

"Here, it's the immigrants who make the factories work," says Mr Lorenzon.

"We have a demographic trend in which for every 10 people who retire, there are never 10 Italians to replace them.

"The youth of Treviso don't want to work on a production line."

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