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Europe Monday, 7 January, 2002, 15:58 GMT
Italy - from emigrant to immigrant state
By Julian Pettifer

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Early one evening, I recently found myself walking the streets of Turin on an unusual mission and in unusual company. I accompanied right-wing MP Mario Borghesio on what he calls ' la ronda', the round. It is, in fact, a vigilante patrol, a dozen members of the right-wing Lega Nord Party who monitor the activities of immigrants, particularly the 'clandestini' or illegal immigrants. Signor Borghesio claims that much of Turin's street crime, drug dealing and prostitution is down to them.

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The patrols are certainly confrontational, even inflammatory. Their members wear uniforms, wave flags and shout provocative slogans through megaphones; and they deliberately target areas with many immigrant residents.

Hostility to immigrants is being inflamed and exploited by the Italian political right. Fears about immigration have already brought sweeping gains for right-wing parties in this year's regional elections, and could even win them next year's national election.

The recent influx of foreigners to Italy causes unease partly because here, for so long, 'migration' referred to the outward movement of Italians to the New World. Unlike other parts of Europe, there was little postwar immigration from overseas.

Northern Italy was once so suspicious of outsiders that even fellow Italians from the poor South, who flooded in to meet demand for factory labour, were called "immigrants" and banished to shanty towns. Now, those Southerners have been absorbed and their place has been taken by arrivals from Africa and Eastern Europe

The political right's campaign has been helped by the state's ineffective response to the sudden rise in immigration. At first, Italy had no legislation to regulate entry and border controls were minimal. By granting frequent amnesties to illegals, allowing them to stay and giving them papers, successive governments made Italy the first choice for anyone wanting to slip into the European Union.

In Porto Palazzo market, there's a new mix of customers
The bustling Porto Palazzo market district - Turin's largest concentration of immigrants - provides an instant snapshot of the racial and social mix that is today's Italy. The city became an industrial powerhouse as the massive FIAT car factories grew and prospered, attracting job-seekers from far and wide.

In Porto Palazzo, anti-immigrant graffiti deface the walls. "Blacks are ungrateful spongers", reads one scrawled message. There is racial tension in the air . In recent weeks, a police raid in search of Moroccan drug dealers provoked hours of rioting and charges of police brutality.

A young Moroccan who had entered the country illegally said he had found work as a billposter, and that he knew all about the activities of Lega Nord:" they shouldn't be provoking bad feelings against us. We just want to work like other people."

A Nigerian woman complained angrily that her husband had been in Italy for 22 years and still had no citizenship: "they hate us ...there's no hope here for immigrants"

But they keep on coming. Despite strident demands that they go home, some other voices insist that immigration must be encouraged. Italy has a very low birth-rate - the lowest in Europe - and so, runs the argument, its economic future will only be maintained by a larger immigrant workforce.

Franco Pavoncello, a professor of Political Science at John Cabott University in Rome, explains: "the demand for foreign workers is very strong. In Italy there are about 56 million people. But the fertility rate is probably the lowest in the world. They are forecasting that by the year 2040 if the trend continues, there will be one third less people in the country - only around 45 million Italians. Who is going to fuel the economy with manpower? And who is going to pay the pensions of the increasing number of old people?". For Pavoncello, it's obvious that immigration can and will keep Italy's economy alive.

Carlo Verra
Carlo Verra would strongly disagree. He's the head of a federation of residents' committees with nearly half a million members. It is supposedly non-political; but judging from its posters and its daily newspaper, the glue that holds its members together is opposition to immigration.

Carlo Verra was born in the market district and still owns a flower shop there. He complains that as the number of foreigners has gone up, the area has gone down He is careful to say that the committees are not against immigrants - just in favour of public order.

" We're not wackos or Ku Klux Klan - we just want to raise our families safely in our own districts. Public order has to come first ".

Dr Stefano Molina
Dr. Stefano Molina of the Agnelli Foundation is an economist and demographer with a special interest in immigration. He, too, believes says it's mistaken to argue that Italy can rely on immigration to satisfy the economy's needs. "What Italy needs is babies "he says, "and the birth rate of immigrants is very similar to that of native Italians".

The only solution, says Dr. Molina, is for the Government to introduce much more family-friendly policies to encourage everyone to have more children. He also believes that immigration must be highly selective, so that newcomers do not go onto the unemployment registers.

Some schools now have many pupils from immigrant families
It's left to others to try and create a more tolerant and diverse society. The Italian education system does not discriminate against the children of illegal immigrants, who are given equal access to schooling . It's one area of life where the State does give them support.

For the rest, the task of helping immigrants is largely left to NGOs and to the Catholic Church. When one area of Turin began to attract a lot of immigrants and racial tensions rose, the Bishop called on Father Piero Gallo, a former missionary in Africa, to take over a new mission there.

Father Piero Gallo
In what has become a very mixed community Father Piero is thought to have worked wonders in promoting integration. He admits, however, that it is difficult to absorb Muslims into the Catholic majority. " Italians tend to think of all Muslims as fundamentalists " , he says, and also remarks that it will be a long time before black people will be thought of as truly Italian.

However you look at it, Italy appears to be in a no-win situation. The political institutions are at present too weak to take decisive action. Every day there are incidents suggesting that social tensions are rising, and that they are being exploited by the right-wing alliance headed by Silvio Berlusconi.

If this should bring him to power in the forthcoming elections, voters will expect instant (and impossible) solutions to their anxieties. As for the immigrants, they must await the political outcome and hope for the best.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Gallo on parish race relations
explains why race relations are improving...
Molina on demographics and politics
"Unlike other Italian cities, Turin had little experience of outsiders"
Porto Palazzo Turin, July 2000
through the Porto Palazzo market...
Links to more Europe stories are at the foot of the page.


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