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RIGHTS: Italy Shows its Ugly Side

ROME, Jan 16 2010 (IPS) - If the first step towards solving a problem is recognising you have one, the Italian authorities look to be some way from tackling the growing racism and xenophobia affecting sections of its society.

Last week’s riots by migrants in the southern town of Rosarno exposed an ugly side of the ‘Bel Paese’ – the beautiful country – that contrasts sharply with its romantic image abroad.

Instead of the architectural delights of Rome, Florence and Venice, viewers around the world saw pictures of seasonal farm workers driven to vandalism by exploitation and inhuman living conditions after the touch paper was lit by two of them being shot by air-rifles.

Instead of sun-kissed beaches and rolling Tuscan hills, there were pictures of the victims of the local retaliation being carried to hospital wards.

Instead of charming waiters and beautiful, immaculately dressed brown-eyed youngsters, cameras focused on angry faced locals applauding as around 1,000 Africans were rushed out of town on packed buses.

For Italy’s Interior Minister Roberto Maroni this was simply a law and order problem, a situation stemming from too much “mistaken tolerance” and a failure to apply the government’s strict immigration laws, which make being an undocumented migrant a criminal offence.

But the United Nations, the Catholic Church and, to a lesser degree, opposition parties see it as a symptom of a more profound problem, and not only because the majority of the Rosarno immigrants had the papers to stay in Italy legally.

“The violence is extremely worrying since it reveals serious and deep-rooted problems of racism against these migrant workers,” read a joint statement by U.N. officials Jorge Bustamante and Githu Muigai, respectively the special rapporteurs on migrants’ rights and on racism and intolerance.

The Vatican agreed in an editorial in its official newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.

“Italy needs to deal with its racism, it is a weeping sore that needs to be treated,” it read. “Not only are they disgusting in themselves, but the incidents which dominate the news at the moment take us back to a dumb and savage hate towards another skin colour which we thought we had left behind.”

The Egyptian foreign ministry also intervened, expressing concern about an example of “violations which migrants and minorities, including Arab Muslim minorities, in Italy face.”

Indeed, the trouble in Rosarno was the latest in a series of episodes and attacks that suggest to many that a climate of intolerance is taking grip.

For example, a local council run by the Northern League party that Maroni belongs to, a key partner in the governing centre-right coalition, attracted international attention with its ‘White Christmas’ campaign to purge the town of Coccaglio of undocumented migrants in time for the last month’s holidays.

Abusive songs and monkey chants directed at Inter Milan footballer Mario Balotelli, an Italy under-21 forward who is of Ghanaian descent, have shone the spotlight on the racism that has dogged Italian football for years, and made him a symbol of the country’s apparent refusal to embrace a multi- ethnic identity.

Many migrants, meanwhile, have the impression that Italians think of them solely as a source of crime and friction, forgetting the vital contribution foreign-born workers make to the economy and society as a whole. A one- day migrant strike is being organised for March 1 to help remind people how much they matter.

“People don’t seem to realise that immigrants are a resource for their country,” Mariana Chavez, a former literature teacher from Ecuador who has been working in Rome as a childminder for 12 years, told IPS.

“Italy needs immigrants because they do the jobs that Italians don’t want – in the fields, factories, kitchens and caring for the elderly. But there is an atmosphere of suspicion. Several of my compatriots say people do things such as move their bags to protect them when they see an immigrant on a bus. If Italy continues like this, it will become racist.

“If we paralyse the country for one day with a strike it might show how the country would be without us. It is necessary to do something because we need to be respected.”

Migrants make up around seven percent of Italy’s population of about 60 million, and account for about nine percent of its gross domestic product, according to International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates.

But rather than policies to help these migrants fit in, there is a tough stance that many say makes it harder for them to settle and integrate into Italian society and may, perversely, actually create illegality.

“Now they only issue residence permit for the period of your work contract, so if you lose your job at the end of it, you are no one,” Nelly Diop, a Senegalese intercultural mediator who is among the organisers of the March 1 strike, told IPS.

“It means you are only here as a worker, not as a human being. You have no prospects to be able to plan for the future. Then they make you wait so long to have your permit. I know a man who has been waiting two years and, of course, in the meantime he has been forced to take jobs on the black market because he still doesn’t have his papers.

“You don’t create an integrated society like this. There are no thoughts of integration but only of exclusion and the climate is getting worse. They want to make us invisible.”

Such protests, and the U.N.’s and the Vatican’s harsh words failed to provoke a reaction from Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government, never mind a policy rethink.

They did help spark considerable public introspection though, and a debate in the media.

Many Italians are embarrassed by the Northern League’s xenophobic rhetoric, and disagree with government policies that include turning back boats carrying migrants on the open seas.

It is also true that Italy is having to quickly adapt to being a destination for migrants, having traditionally been an exporter of labour to other countries.

Some commentators believe that recent events and the government’s approach show the country has still not come to terms with its history.

“Britain has reflected on its colonial past, Germany has done the same with Nazism, but Italians still believe the myth of the Good Italian, soft colonialism and insist the racial laws of the 1930s were passed by fascists, not Italians,” Corriere della Sera journalist Gian Antonio Stella told The Guardian newspaper.

The Vatican’s daily agreed: “It seems Italians are incapable of overcoming their racist past.”

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