Italy’s response: rescue the migrants, then turn a blind eye

Xenophobia isn’t far below the surface in a country that has limited structures to deal with migrants

Anti-immigration: graffiti on a street in Catania. Photograph: Frank Miller

Anti-immigration: graffiti on a street in Catania. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

‘Caccia all’immigrato,” or hunt the migrant. For 10 days this month the working-class Rome suburb of Corcolle has been the theatre of familiar tensions between African immigrants and the local community. For reasons that remain unclear, two buses, both driven by young women, were attacked by immigrants, some of whom may have been drunk and some just bitterly frustrated.

Rightly or wrongly, locals concluded that the attackers were inmates of a local holding centre for asylum seekers, places often known as pens.

In times of recession and high unemployment, people in a place like Corcolle feel that they are stretched far enough and can do without a reception centre as well. Hence their frustration took to the streets, resulting in minor skirmishes, sometimes with passing Africans.

One local radio station, Rtr 99, commented: “You lot, here in Italy scrounging around. If you had all drowned in the Canale di Sicilia, that would be so many b******s less to attack a Rome bus driver.”

In all probability this is a minority viewpoint, linked to an extreme right-wing movement. The problem is that, in modern Italy, racism is often not far below the surface.

A senior Northern League figure, Roberto Calderoli, last year called Italy’s Congolese-born former minister for racial integration, Cécile Kyenge, an “orangutan”. This summer the head of Italian football, Carlo Tavecchio, called African footballers “banana eaters”. Both men are still in their posts, with Calderoli involved in drafting new electoral legislation.

In a country where the xenophobic Northern League has had a government role for 20 years, flashes of racism are part of life. So among the community of “boat people” the word has gone out: do not stop here; welfare services are limited; integration is a utopia; and racism lurks.

The word is: do not be identified in Italy, because if you are then you are stuck in Italy (under the terms of the Dublin regulation) and you will never make it to that brother, sister or cousin in Germany or elsewhere.

Italian authorities know this only too well – and, faced with huge numbers, they simply turn a blind eye. Last week the European fingerprint database for identifying asylum seekers and irregular border-crossers wanted to know why, of the 135,000 boat people who have landed in Italy this year, only 70,000 of them had been identified. Asked about this matter, the ministry of the interior declined to comment.

But it is not accurate to portray the Italian response to migration as one only of cynicism and indifference. Mare Nostrum, the state’s sea-rescue service, and the thousands in the coastguard, police and volunteer services who daily risk their lives to pull people out of the Mediterranean, usually off the coast of Sicily, testify to the contrary.

Yet the rescue and reception services are under huge strain. Laura Boldrini, speaker of the lower house of the Italian parliament, who between 1998 and 2012 served as a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, last week told the resident foreign press: “There is a war going on out there in the Mediterranean. We have had [3,000] deaths this year; Mare Nostrum is a worthy response, but it is not enough.”

She argues that, unlike the Albanian and Romanian flows of 20 years ago, the vast majority of today’s migrants are political refugees, from countries such as Syria, Somalia and Libya: people with no choice.

The EU needs to find the political will to deal with a flow that is already three times bigger than last year’s figure of 42,000.

Although she acknowledges that Italy’s geographic position and its 7,000km coastline create a unique sea-rescue problem, she dismisses the populist catchcry, used by many on the Italian centre-right, that Italy has been abandoned by its EU partners. She points out that other European countries, such as Germany, “have taken on a bigger burden”.

Eurostat figures make the point. Last year Sweden (with 26,395), Germany (with 26,080) and France (with 16,155) all granted political asylum to more people than Italy (14,465). The figures for 2014 are already much higher.

And Marco Scipioni, a researcher at the University of London, says that in the years 2007 to 2011 Italy secured €238 million from an EU migration fund. This is 12 per cent of the EU allocation to migration support, and second only to the proportion that Spain received.

Many would agree with Laura Boldrini her when she says that Italy tends to stumble “from emergency to emergency”, handicapped by “the lack of a structured programme for dealing with the migrants”. As of now, however, such a programme is not in sight.

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