Berlusconi's party keen to compete for the xenophobic vote

 

SITTING AT a bar on the lakefront here in Trevignano the other morning, your correspondent was stopped no less than five times in the space of an hour by five different African hustlers, all offering the same range of not-exactly essential items, such as running socks and cigarette lighters.

None of the Vu-Cumpra?, as they are unflatteringly called (the name means Do-You-Wanna-Buy?) was doing much trade.

Some of them were hungry and indeed one young Nigerian woman was grateful for the offer of a cappuccino and cornetto. Such numbers of hustlers in a little village, north of Rome, inevitably led to reflections on one of the many controversial statements made in recent times by Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Defending Italy’s new policy of halting would-be illegal immigrants in the Mediterranean and then towing them back to North Africa, the prime minister seemed to suggest that he was opposed to the vision of a multi-ethnic Italy: “The left’s idea is of a multi-ethnic Italy, but that’s not our idea. Ours is to welcome only those who meet the conditions for political asylum.”

Inevitably, the prime minister’s remarks prompted outraged comment, with senior opposition and Church figures arguing that, de facto, Italy already is “multi-ethnic”. Mgr Mariano Crociata, secretary of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, defended multiculturalism as a “value” that already existed in Italy, while the former centre-left leader Piero Fassino said: “He’s wrong, seriously wrong. We’ve got to honestly accept that Italy – like France and Germany already are – will become a multi-ethnic, multicultural, and multi-religious country.”

Those who argue that Italy, despite the protestations of the Northern League, already is “multi-ethnic” have their point proved by Unioncamere (the national association of local chambers of commerce). According to Unioncamere, 7.2 per cent of small businesses, representing 9.7 per cent of GDP, are run by “extracomunitari” (non-EU citizens).

We are talking here not only of retail (more than 104,000 shops) but also of businesses in the building and manufacturing sectors. Figures for 2008 show that 45,823 Moroccans, 32,965 Chinese, 26,276 Albanians, 13,500 Senegalese and 11,054 Tunisians all run their own businesses in Italy, from southern Sicily to northern Lombardy.

All of which might make the government’s current immigration policy harder to understand, were it not for one obvious consideration, namely, that we are in the middle of an election campaign.

At least that is one possible explanation for the remarkable statement last weekend from defence minister Ignazio La Russa, who chose to attack both the UNHCR and its spokesperson in Italy, Laura Boldrini.

Replying to criticism of the maritime blockade policy of sending back immigrants without first screening them for asylum purposes, La Russa said: “She (Laura Boldrini) is either inhuman or a criminal. She is inhuman because she wants us to lock up the migrants for months before sending them back. Or she is a criminal because she wants to evade the law, so that the migrants escape in Italy and move all over the national territory.”

Those remarks prompted a terse reply from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, who called them “baseless personal attacks” whilst the UNHCR pointed out that Italy now ranked as the number four destination worldwide for asylum seekers, after the USA, Canada and France.

Last year 70 per cent of the 30,000 “boat people” who landed on Italian coasts requested political asylum, with some 50 per cent of them receiving some form of legal protection. The boat people come mainly from African and Asian countries such as, in order of numbers, Nigeria, Somalia, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Togo and Iraq, all countries not unfamiliar with domestic political tensions. By blocking the boat people, the UNHCR implied, Italy might be in breach of the 1951 Geneva Convention.

Clearly, as even La Russa himself pointed out, his remarks were made in an electoral climate. When it comes to the European ballot box next month, the minister’s Freedom Party (PDL) will face a serious challenge in northern Italy from its allies, the federalist Northern League. To some extent, the minister may well have been flexing his muscles just to show that he can be every bit as “anti-immigrant” as the Northern League.

Nonetheless, the comments come against the background not only of the boat people “blockade” but also at a time when a bill is going through Italian parliament that is intended to combat illegal immigration by imposing fines on the immigrants and by jailing those who house them.

While opposition leader Dario Franceschini likened the Berlusconi government measure to the infamous Mussolini racial laws of 1938, even President Giorgio Napolitano was moved to intervene, saying: “A public rhetoric is becoming more and more established in Italy that does not hesitate to adopt tones of intolerance and xenophobia.”

Indeed, perhaps starting with some government ministers, albeit out on the election trail.