Images of African immigrants rioting in the streets of a small southern Italian city, throwing rocks, blocking roads, and breaking store and car windows, briefly exposed a shocking reality: the existence of Italy’s growing migrant-labor population, mostly Africans, an estimated 20,000 of them working under inhuman conditions, living in abandoned buildings or improvised structures without heat or working toilets, sleeping four (even five) to a mattress while laboring off the books for about $30 a day.
Early January’s revolt was sparked by an incident in which a couple of local residents from around the town of Rosarno, Calabria, drove by a migrant encampment and shot an African worker with a pellet gun, as if for sport, laughed, and drove away. “We are not animals,” many of the immigrants told reporters, explaining the explosion of longfestering anger that this episode triggered. Vigilante groups retaliated against the migrant rioters, firing further rounds of pellets. Some in the press compared the community defense groups to the Ku Klux Klan, while Italy’s interior minister attributed the violence to “too much tolerance” of illegal immigration.
Rosarno, a town of about 15,000, is the crossroads where two national crises meet: Italy’s failure to deal intelligently with the first mass immigration in its recent history and the increasing domination of southern Italy by the Mafia. Located in the citrus groves of the plain of Gioia Tauro, the area around Rosarno is one of the nastiest strongholds of the ‘Ndrangheta, the Calabrian version of the Mafia. Five of the principal towns in the area have had their city councils dissolved because of organized crime infiltration. The presence of thousands of migrant workers in the area would not have gone unnoticed by the area’s crime families--or by its nominal legal authorities. Hundreds of the workers in Rosarno were living in a single abandoned factory on the edge of town--not scattered about or hidden in the countryside. It is inconceivable that these men were working without the blessing and profit of the ‘Ndrangheta or the passive consent of local police and carabinieri. “Rosarno is not New York,” Gianfranco Fini, the president of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, said recently. “Everyone knows that there were places where workers lived who worked off the books and were exploited. For what reason didn’t the authorities do their duty?”
Not much is known about the relations between organized crime and migrant labor. The Mafia in this part of Italy has traditionally played the role of enforcers for local landowners, while taking a slice of the profits earned by their thuggish maintenance off of rock-bottom labor prices. Some authorities suspect the ‘Ndrangheta was involved in the punitive raids against the workers--a way of keeping them in line. Known ‘Ndrangheta members were arrested when police finally restored order after two days of chaotic violence.
There’s a precedent for this type of clash. In 2008, in another town near Naples, the Neapolitan organized-crime outfit known as the Camorra killed six African immigrants, provoking a riot that was only squelched when the Italian government dispatched 400 members of the police and carabinieri. According to Roberto Saviano, author of Gomorrah, a book about the Camorra, African immigrants are often braver in standing up to the Mafia than Italians.
Millions of immigrants have settled in Italy in the past several decades, but immigration policy remains as haphazard as ever. There are now approximately four million foreign-born immigrants living there legally, about 6 percent of the total population, with hundreds of thousands of others living illegally. Immigrants now contribute an estimated 9.3 percent to Italy’s GDP and much more in some industries--construction, manufacturing, and tourism. Given that immigrants contribute more to GDP than their share of the population, they are, in fact, quite productive. In many ways, immigrant workers are exactly what an aging country like Italy needs. They are mostly people of working age who pay into the country’s lavish pension system and keep it from collapsing. And yet, millions of Italians still nurse the fantasy that immigrants produce little more than crime and that the country would be better off if it got rid of them.
The majority of immigrants have settled in the north and center of the country. They live and work under better conditions than the migrant fruit pickers in Calabria. And, contrary to the images offered by Rosarno, the majority of foreign immigrants are neither black nor Muslim. Romanians, armed with legal EU passports, make up the largest single group. Filipino (and now Romanian and Ukrainian) women dominate the domestic labor force--babysitters, housekeepers, and caretakers for the elderly. Chinese work in the shoe and leather businesses, and have become a force in textiles. North Africans own many of the fruit and vegetable stores, frequently staying open longer hours than their Italian counterparts.
To say that Italy is not yet a multicultural society is an understatement. The Northern League, a member of the current center-right coalition, has made xenophobia its stock-in-trade. In Bologna, one Northern League branch declared “Pork Day” to prevent the building of a mosque. The idea was to smear the area designated for the mosque with pork products to make it religiously unfit for Muslims. Rather than being banished from politics, the promoter of the idea, Roberto Calderoli, is a minister in Silvio Berlusconi’s government. Italians have grown accustomed to having foreigners do many of the hard jobs they no longer want for themselves, scurrying around on the margins of their society. Despite the presence of a second generation, some of whom have gone to university and published books, Italians still cannot conceive of immigrants as compatriots capable of contributing to their culture or society. When questioned by a TV reporter of Middle Eastern heritage (who speaks excellent Italian), Calderoli called her a “suntanned lady.” He paid no political price for the obtuse remark, just as Prime Minister Berlusconi paid no price for referring to Barack Obama as “suntanned”--and, just to show that he was not going to be cowed by foreign opinion, describing Michelle Obama that way, too.
But it is too simplistic to reduce Italy’s immigrant problem to racism. It is not uncommon to overhear a bar owner launch into an anti-immigrant rant only to watch him turn around and be perfectly friendly with an immigrant peddler who stops in to have a coffee. Most Italians reside in an insular culture organized around family and local loyalties. Reactions to the internal migration of southern Italians to the north of Italy after World War II were easily as intense as those against today’s foreign immigrants. Italians have very limited experience in dealing with those who are different from themselves.
The treatment of immigrants in the Italian press has contributed to this climate. Coverage of immigrant criminality approximately doubled on the six national TV networks from 2006 to 2008, even though crime in Italy was, in most categories, stable or slightly down. Every time a Romanian was accused of raping an Italian woman, the story would dominate the airwaves, while the much larger number of rapes by native-born Italians went generally unreported. The massive media coverage created a perception of a “security emergency” that became one of the major campaign issues that brought Berlusconi and the center-right back to power in 2008. It so happens that Berlusconi owns three of the six major networks and exerts considerable indirect control over the other three. Interestingly, coverage of the issue has diminished considerably since his election, although Italy’s actual crime rates have hardly budged.
There is no political upside in defending immigrants. That’s why the center-left had almost no response to the right’s harping on the “security emergency” in the last campaign. Ironically, the one major politician touting something innovative--allowing immigrants who are legal residents but not citizens to vote in local elections as a means of assimilating them--is Gianfranco Fini, a former neo-fascist, currently president of Italy’s lower house. It is true that, over the last 15 years, he has moved toward the center. Still, when Fini is one of the Italian immigrant’s only champions, the situation is dire indeed.
Alexander Stille is the San Paolo professor of international journalism at the Columbia School of Journalism and author of, among other titles, Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic.