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Thursday, 9 August, 2001, 21:13 GMT 22:13 UK
The new Italians
Immigrant worker
The factories of northern Italy need immigrant labour
By European affairs correspondent William Horsley in Brescia

The land of Dante and Donatello is changing. Italy is fast becoming a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society.

After a century of mass emigration of Italians to the US and other countries, Italy has become the biggest magnet in Europe for new migrants from Africa and Asia.

While Germany and Britain want to limit new immigration to a few thousand high-tech workers each year, Italy is receiving about 100,000 newcomers annually.

Now Italy has at least 1.5 million immigrants, mostly from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. The number looks like doubling again in the next 10 years.

Thanks to its 5,000km coastline and land borders with four other countries, Italy is a prime target for illegal immigrants from many parts of the world.

Christian: found work easily and expects to stay
But most of its immigrants, 1.3 million of them, are there legally, drawn by the demand in the labour-starved factories of the north and the relatively open attitudes of the Italians.

In future one in three of all manual jobs in northern Italy are likely to be filled by immigrants. In the centre of the elegant Renaissance city of Brescia 25% of the population are already foreigners.

"I came here six years ago on a tourist visa," said Christian from Ghana, who works in a metal foundry in the industrial town of Lumezzane in Brescia province, along with a dozen of his compatriots.

"Then I thought of working, instead of going back, because of the economic crisis in my country. I worked for a year without papers. Then the government gave me a work permit."

They are good, strong workers. Without them the foundry would probably close

Foundry manager Enrico Bugatti
Christian, like many of his friends, now expects to win the right to stay permanently.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants have found jobs in Italy's black economy and then found employers to sponsor them.

Many more have won the right to live in Italy thanks to amnesties for the clandestini, or illegal immigrants.

"They are good, strong workers. Without them the foundry would probably close," said Enrico Bugatti, a manager of the Bugatti Metalworks where Christian is employed.

Lumezzane is a patchwork of different ethnic communities. In one district more than 300 Pakistanis live close together.

Pakistani women
The Pakistani community celebrates 10 years in Italy
In July they celebrated their first 10 years there with a colourful Muslim festival.

Although the ethnic minorities are putting down strong roots they remain second-class citizens. Many will live in Italy for the rest of their lives, but they have no right to vote, and it is very hard for them to win Italian citizenship.

So far immigration has been accompanied by harmonious race relations compared with the record in Germany, France and Britain, but Italy's leaders are worried.

Guido Bolaffi, a top immigration official, reckons that Italy will need up to 60,000 new migrant workers each year in the coming years.

They look at me and say, if this man, coming from the deep jungle of Africa, can come to this point, I can do that too

Idris Sanneh
So the ratio of immigrants, currently one of the lowest in the EU, will soon catch up with Europe's other big countries.

Race relations problems are growing more obvious, and discrimination is commonplace.

"They refuse you accommodation just because you are an African, or to be more precise, just because you are black," says one Nigerian factory worker in Brescia.

But Idris Sanneh from Senegal has broken the mould and become a role model for blacks in Italy.

He rejects the idea that immigrants must work on production lines.

He made his name as a sports commentator on Italian national TV and is now a celebrity who campaigns for equal opportunity for all, including immigrants.

"They look at me and say, if this man, coming from the deep jungle of Africa, can come to this point, I can do that too," he says.

Despite examples such as these, popular worries about immigration are growing, and it was a hot issue during May's election campaign.

Idris Sanneh
Idris Sanneh: one of Italy's first immigrant celebrities
The Italian Government is proposing a new immigration law which will seek to assuage these fears by ending amnesties for illegals and promising stricter immigration controls.

The right-wing Northern League, part of the government coalition, wants to decree that all immigrants from outside Europe are only temporary workers who must go back to their own countries after completing their contracts.

The League's demands will probably be left out when the bill goes before parliament in mid-September, because of the consensus among most Italian business and political leaders that fresh blood is needed to secure the country's economic future.

But Italy urgently needs an immigration policy that can fulfil the human ambitions of the "new Italians" and avoid the race relations tensions in other parts of Europe.

Brescia and other cities in northern Italy already have a vibrant, multi-cultural society.

But will the newcomers of other races ever have the same chance to flourish as Italy's own migrants, who founded prosperous Italian communities in countries like Britain, Germany and North America?

These are big questions for Italy. So far, there are no clear answers.

William Horsley reported from northern Italy for "Europe Direct" on BBC World TV and BBC News 24.

See also:

10 May 01 | Europe
Bossi focuses immigration fears
11 Jul 01 | Europe
Europe's immigration vision
04 Jul 01 | Europe
Germany's immigration revolution
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