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Italy torn by racial strains

Italy has been transformed in recent decades from a nation of emigrants to a target country for mass immigration. The change has brought severe political and social tensions. In the first of a series of pieces from Italy, Aidan Lewis looks at how the Roma (Gypsy) community has been caught up in an anti-immigrant backlash.

Police clash with illegal immigrants protesting in Massa, Tuscany, 26 January 2009
Authorities say they are cracking down on illegal immigrants

Across the road from the Italian capital's oldest ethnic Roma settlement, a group of middle-aged men stand sheltering from the rain under the awnings of a local bar, smoking.

They make no effort to hide their hostility towards the residents of Casilino 900, a sprawling collection of wooden shacks and caravans on the eastern outskirts of Rome.

"I'd get rid of them all," says Antonio. "The Italians don't want them here. We're fed up."

His companions signal their agreement. "They turn you into a racist," offers Giorgio. "You're lucky if they don't attack you."

Others in the neighbourhood are more moderate, or guarded.

But the palpable anxiety reflects tensions surrounding Italy's more marginalised immigrant groups that have repeatedly spiralled out of control in recent months.

A series of what appear to be racially motivated attacks and reprisals have contributed to concerns that a creeping xenophobia is infecting the country's social fabric, aided by a political discourse that often links Italy's social and economic woes to immigration.

"Italy is living through a very difficult moment," says Franco Pittau, a senior researcher on immigration at the Catholic charity, Caritas.

"When the overall atmosphere deteriorates, people who are already poorly disposed take advantage of it to do nasty things."

Roma exclusion

Despite their longstanding presence in Italy, the Roma have been caught at the centre of a backlash that has spread to envelop other communities, and that began in earnest after the October 2007 murder of an Italian woman, Giovanna Reggiani, in Rome. A young Romanian of Roma ethnicity later convicted for the killing was quickly identified as the culprit.

Life in Italian Roma camps

Over the following months several attacks on Roma camps were reported, including one in which Roma settlements in Naples were set on fire.

The Reggiani murder also prompted the first of a series of emergency decrees from the then centre-left government and its centre-right successor that focus on crime and illegal immigration.

A plan for taking fingerprints as part of a census of the Roma last summer was criticised as discriminatory, though ministers said the measure could help protect the community.

Since the elections last April, much of the drive to strengthen immigration policy has come from the Northern League, a populist party in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's ruling coalition.

Challenged over their approach, the party's politicians say they are simply responding to Italians worried about protecting themselves, their jobs and their identity.

They also point to statistics showing foreigners committing more crime and having a higher presence in Italian jails - though analysts say these are partly explained by the high number of crimes linked to breaches of immigration laws, and the fact that immigrants are less likely to be granted house arrest.

Critics argue that the authorities have treated the Roma primarily as a security challenge in recent months, and have failed to tackle the root causes pushing some Roma into criminal activity.

"That is something that we don't see anywhere else in Europe, it is quite unprecedented," says Rob Kushen, managing director of the Budapest-based Roma Rights Centre.

"There's been a long-standing refusal of Italy to deal with the socio-economic underpinnings of Roma exclusion, and of Roma really becoming a permanent underclass in Italian society."

Reprisals

In the province around the capital, tension flared again last week when four Romanians were arrested for allegedly gang-raping a young Italian woman in the town of Guidonia.

TOP IMMIGRANT COMMUNITIES
Romania: 625,278
Albania: 401,949
Morocco: 365,908
China: 156,519
Ukraine: 132,718
Philippines: 105,675
Tunisia: 93,601
Source: Caritas/Migrantes, Istat

The day after the rape, separate groups of Albanians and Romanians were beaten up on the margins of a march by a small far-right party.

Later, as the suspects were being driven away from the police station an angry crowd shouting insults and kicking at the police cars had to be restrained by a cordon of officers.

A warning from Rome's Mayor Gianni Alemanno against holding "entire communities" responsible was not enough to prevent continuing reports of reprisals, including a letter bomb that blew out the windows of a Romanian-owned shop.

One person in Guidonia - apparently referring to plans for moving some Roma camps - told local radio: "If they move Casilino 900 here, we'll start a war".

Political comment has once again lumped together Romanians - now Italy's largest immigrant group at more than 600,000 strong - with the Roma, many of whom are long-term residents in Italy and have origins in other Eastern European states.

Less fear?

The League, which wants more autonomy for Italy's prosperous north, does not operate in a vacuum.

Some of their more radical proposals are shot down by their own allies, while powerful forces in Italian society including the church, the president, trade unions and the voluntary sector have all spoken out in defence of immigrants' rights.

A march in Rome to oppose discrimination against the Roma community in Rome, 8 June 2008
There have been marches in favour of the Roma and other immigrants

There is evidence of the government joining in efforts to combat racial prejudice, such as a toll-free hotline for victims of racism advertised on Rome's underground trains.

On a popular level there have been anti-racism marches, with thousands of people turning out in Milan in late September to protest against the murder of a young man from Burkina Faso beaten to death by a bar owner and his son who suspected him of theft.

There are also signs that attitudes may be shifting.

The number of people who say they are scared of immigrants has dropped gradually from a peak of more than 70% in 1993-94 - a period that saw massive arrivals of Albanian immigrants on Italy's south-eastern coast - to a level close to the European average of about 35%, says Giovanni Giulio Valtolina, an expert at the Milan-based migration research foundation, Ismu.

"The immigrant that people are afraid of is the illegal immigrant," he says. "It's not a generalised, undifferentiated fear like it was before."

Risk of 'turbulence'

In dozens of interviews in Rome and beyond, few people expressed open prejudice against immigrants.

Asked whether they see immigration in a positive or negative light, many said it was fine as long as immigrants worked and obeyed the law, a comment sometimes - but not always - followed by the observation that often this was not the case.

File photo of Jean-Leonard Touadi
My impression is that this culture of rejection, exclusion, is beginning to embed itself
Jean-Leonard Touadi

As Italy's first black member of parliament, Jean-Leonard Touadi achieved a symbolic breakthrough in a country where it is still rare to see immigrants in white-collar jobs.

Representing Italy's main centre-left opposition party, Mr Touadi, himself an immigrant from the central African state of Congo, sees his success as a sign that Italy is slowly becoming "more open, pluralistic" in line with other European countries.

Yet when asked about the current situation he is gloomy, in line with a number of recent opinion polls suggesting Italians have increasingly negative views about immigration.

"My impression is that this culture of rejection, exclusion, is beginning to embed itself in Italian society," he says.

With the Italian economy in crisis the Northern League has succeeded in presenting itself as a "defender of 'Italianness'", he says, and Italy has discovered for the first time "that it is a xenophobic, intolerant country".

"Every immigrant is either a criminal or is potentially a criminal - which is unacceptable because as a country we have at least three or four regions in the south controlled by organised criminal groups.

"It's impossible to make people believe that immigrants are the security priority rather than organised crime."

If the issue of immigration is not confronted "frankly and pragmatically," he says, Italy could find itself facing the kind of problems that led to widespread rioting in Paris and other French cities in 2005.

"With the second generation Italy risks entering a period of social turbulence because we can't afford to put four million people who live among us on the pavement, in social exclusion."



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