Anti-immigration rhetoric won’t solve Italy’s immigration woes

On Sunday Italy will go to the polls, at the end of a bitter and at times violent election campaign dominated by the issue of immigration.  Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers have frequently been the scapegoats of a society facing a prolonged period of economic discontent post financial crisis, with poor job opportunities especially for young people.

As we have seen in other European countries, an increased hostility to migrants was fed by public discourse, politicians’ statements and media representation. The recent racist attack near Macerata, in which a white Italian shouting neo-Nazi slogans randomly shot and injured six African migrants was seen by many commentators as a direct result of the surge of xenophobic rhetoric in the public arena. The shooter is a failed candidate for the right-wing League (previously known as the Northern League) who blamed black migrants for the death of an 18 years-old Italian woman (a Nigerian drug pusher was arrested following the murder).

Far from condemning the violent act and deploring the radicalisation of so many Italians, the focus of the subsequent debate has been on the necessity of controlling and reducing migration. League’s leader Matteo Salvini blamed the centre-left Democratic Party for having allowed the entry of “hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants, turning the country into a refugee camp”. Silvio Berlusconi said illegal migrants are “social time bomb ready to explode” and pledged to deport 600,000 illegal immigrants from Italy. The catchphrase “Italians First” has been used to stigmatise foreigners.

This resurgence of anti-migrant feeling comes after years xenophobic rhetoric directed at Roma people, who have been targeted by a number of discriminatory policies encouraging their spatial and social segregation.

My recently published Ph.D research, which received an award from the NGO Associazione 21 Luglio explored the effect of the decades’ old policy of Roma migrants’ exclusion via the creation of special Roma ‘camps’.  I analysed the marginalisation dynamics produced by the camps, in particular the barriers they create to social integration.

Recording the experiences of those who moved from a camp to different housing solutions (either autonomously or supported by a community network or an institution), I showed how housing disadvantage is linked with employment exclusion, education segregation and inequality.

The dismantling of Roma camps has been invoked by all Italian parties over time and it has been on the agenda of several local authorities. However, while all decisions about the camps’ closure should involve the beneficiaries and alternative housing solutions for slum dwellers should be sought, in the majority of cases politicians simply call for the “bulldozing of Roma camps” – a  clear violation of human rights. 

Some of the protagonists of my study were young undocumented Roma from the former Yugoslavia, while others were more recent arrived Roma migrants from Romania.  Giving children born and schooled in Italy from immigrant parents a path to citizenship has been on the agenda of the centre-left for years. However, last December the  centre-left dominated Italian government failed to approve the law on Ius soli, or birthright citizenship, due to the lack of support in Parliament. This was a blow for the 800,000 potential beneficiaries of the reform, and a missed opportunity to increase inclusion.  

Although the outcome of the election is unpredictable, polls suggest the centre-right coalition, led by Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia and the anti-immigrant League, is in the lead, with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement as the single most popular party among voters.

Regardless of the result, the anti-immigration discourse is no longer confined to the right of the political spectrum. Recent challenges in the integration policies aimed at refugees have created and reinforced the tendency for populist discourse. It is no surprise that the anti-establishment Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio takes a hard line on immigration, while simultaneously blaming Europe for immigration-related problems. But even the centre-democratic parties have joined the chorus of institutional voices linking immigration with an increase in danger and insecurity for the local population and promoted restrictive migratory policies.

Italy is becoming a distinctly less welcoming country, no matter who leads it following the election. But the rhetoric of hostility and fear in itself will do nothing to alleviate the Mediterranean crisis or make existing migrants, including Roma migrants, disappear or integrate any faster.

The new government coalition, whatever its prevailing colour, will need instead to start promoting policies to tackle social integration. They should start by giving social and citizenship rights to those who selected Italy as their homeland and their children, something that has been on the agenda for more than 20 years, but not been adequately addressed.


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