Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010

Denial and Anger in Italy

When hundreds of African immigrants rioted in the southern Italian city of Rosarno last month, the world got a glimpse of a very different Italy from the one pictured in the tourist brochures. Overturned cars, shattered shop windows and street battles are a far cry from tranquil villages on a Tuscan hillside.

Another contradiction uncovered by the violence is much more fundamental, and it has less to do with how Italy is perceived by outsiders than with how Italians themselves view their nation. As a country, Italy is becoming increasingly multiethnic, as immigrants from Africa, China, Eastern Europe and the Middle East arrive to work jobs locals refuse to take. But as a society, Italians have been slow to acknowledge the change.

Demographically, Italy is transforming faster than almost anywhere else in Europe. Last year, according to the Catholic charity Caritas, the percentage of noncitizen residents in the country — 7.2% — was greater than Britain's. And that's not counting the country's illegal population, estimated at well over half a million. In a country where the native-born population is aging rapidly, 1 in 6 babies delivered in 2008 was born to a foreign-passport holder. La dolce vita is also becoming more dependent on immigrants and their labor. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that foreign workers account for 9% of Italy's annual GDP. They pick the fruit in the country's orchards, staff its restaurants and workshops, and look after its young and elderly. "If all the migrants just stopped working now, the Italian economic system would collapse," says IOM spokesman Flavio Di Giacomo.

Yet the country retains an intensely prescriptive streak. Rigid codes of behavior govern everything from how to dress to the proper time of day to drink a cappuccino. Far from being a melting pot, Italy remains a three-course meal, with the pasta carefully segregated from the appetizer and main course and no place for a bowl of hummus or plate of egg rolls. "People now accept that immigrants are here," says Giuseppe Sciortino, a sociology professor at the University of Trento. "But they're still in denial that they are a presence that will change Italy forever."

In some places, the denial is turning to anger. The violence in Rosarno erupted on Jan. 7 after two immigrants were shot by white men with pellet guns. The town's immigrants responded by burning cars and vandalizing shops, prompting retaliatory attacks by residents. "It's racism against blacks," says Yakuba Camara, a 25-year-old immigrant from Guinea, one of the clash's first victims. "I didn't do anything, and they shot me." By the end of the weekend, nearly 70 people — most of them migrant workers — had been injured. The Pope called for tolerance and the government evacuated about 1,000 immigrants to neighboring cities to ensure their safety.

The region of Calabria, where Rosarno is located, makes up the toe of Italy's boot. Seasonal migrants — mostly from Africa and Eastern Europe — have long worked in the citrus orchards there. The hours are long and the wages often less than $30 a day. When Fabrizio Gatti, a journalist for Italian news weekly L'Espresso, posed as a migrant worker in 2006, he uncovered a world where beatings and exploitation were common. "You have no contract — no rights," Gatti says. "So if they don't pay you, you cannot go to the police."

The international aid group Doctors Without Borders — best known for its work in war zones — considers the conditions so bad that it runs a clinic catering to workers who live in abandoned factories with no access to running water or health care. "This is a neglected population, and they are the victims of exploitation and violence," says Sophie Baylac, who coordinates the group's migrant programs in Europe. "The situation ... is a symptom of the ongoing neglect suffered by seasonal migrants."

Despite that neglect, or perhaps because of it, immigration has become a hot-button issue in Italy. A poll last year found that 69% of the country considered immigration a top priority, more than twice the continental average. So far, the discussion has been monopolized by the anti-immigrant Northern League Party, which has ridden to electoral success by focusing on crowded boatloads of illegals and the links between foreigners and criminality. With the left largely silent, many voters see the Northern League's rhetoric as the only serious attempt to tackle the issue. "The fear of immigrants isn't something the League has instilled," says Giancarlo Giorgetti, a Northern League parliamentarian. "We are the mirror of the Italian society. It's the culture of this country that wants to close itself to the outside."

Last summer, the Italian government, in which the Northern League plays a central role, made irregular migration a finable crime and tripled the period — to six months — that immigrants can be detained before deportation. In January, it announced it would cap the number of foreign students in the country's schools and universities at 30%.

Yet such policies address only part of the challenge, and ignore the fact that immigrants now play a huge role in the Italian economy. Italians don't like to think they're racist, but it would be hard to find a dark-skinned resident who agrees. In many ways the country needs to shift its efforts from keeping immigrants out to finding a way to fit them in. "We're creating a group of people who are heavily marginalized and will react the way that marginalized people react," says Sciortino.

Take the official response to the violence in Rosarno, which was sadly familiar. Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, a prominent Northern League politician, blamed it on his country's lax approach to undocumented workers. "For years illegal immigration — which feeds criminal activities — has been tolerated and nothing effective has ever been done about it," he said. Never mind that the IOM estimates that at least half of the evacuated workers now detained in reception centers held regular working papers. When activist groups announced that the country's migrants might strike on March 1, Maroni responded that any illegal aliens found in the piazzas that day would be arrested and expelled.

There's another way. Domenico Lucano, mayor of Riace, a hilltop village 37 miles 
 (60 km) east of Rosarno on the other side of the rugged mountains, offered to take in the most wounded migrants. "What happened in Rosarno left us without words," he says. "A piece of paper can't make the difference between being a man or not."

Riace — a cluster of tiled-roof buildings overlooking the Ionian Sea — has spent the past decade actively seeking out immigrants in an attempt to revitalize itself. Ten years ago, the small village in one of the poorest parts of the country was rapidly depopulating. Houses stood empty. Businesses struggled to survive. "Riace was dying," says Antonio Chillino, a town butcher. "The young were leaving. We started to ask, What now? Do we close and relocate somewhere else?"

It was then that Lucano — elected mayor in 2004 — began recruiting new residents, taking advantage of a government integration program to bring in refugees who had passed through Italy's detention system. "A place of homes without inhabitants met a group of people without houses," he says. Riace is now home to more than 40 immigrants and their families, and last month along with two neighboring communities, the town began accepting 180 Palestinians from a camp on the Syria-Iraq border. "People here understand that the refugees can be a resource, and not a menace," says Cosimo Curiale, who runs the village's immigration program. "With the arrival of the immigrants came children, and they saved the schools. Teachers are hired. The butchers work more. The grocer works more. The tobacco shop works more."

Unfortunately, Riace remains the exception. And while the town's cobblestone walkways may ring with the shouts of children, Lucano's project is far from sustainable. It relies on government funding to provide its new residents with a livelihood. Victims of this month's violence have also begun to arrive ("If I can find work, I will stay," says one), but the town is unlikely to take in more than half a dozen or receive funding to maintain them. Meanwhile, the old olive-oil factory in Rosarno where several hundred immigrants once squatted has been abandoned. Dark smears just outside the gates mark the spots where fires burned. Inside the buildings, clothes hang across machinery. A pair of chickens scratch between tents on the concrete floor. There are signs of a community — chairs set up as if for a meeting. One room looks like it served as a church; hand-inked posters praising Jesus adorn the wall.

In the nearby orchards, immigrants from North Africa and Eastern Europe pick fruit under much the same conditions as the people they replaced. And, says Despina Ivasenco, a Rosarno-based immigrant advocate, some of the original African laborers have already returned. "The orange harvest continues," she says. With roughly a quarter of Italy's GDP coming from the informal sector, irregular migration is nearly impossible to control. "It's very difficult to crack down on illegal immigrants because it means cracking down on one of the key structures of the Italian economy," says Sciortino.