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Tensions run high in Rome's suburbs as Italy struggles with migration crisis

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The wealthy suburb of Casale San Nicola on the outskirts of Rome, where well-off Italians escape the chaos of the capital and retreat into their multi-million euro villas nestled between cypress trees, seems like an unlikely flashpoint for the migrant crisis in Italy.

But this month, more than a dozen police officers were injured in the enclave as they fended off violent protesters demonstrating against the arrival of 19 migrants, who are being housed in an old school that has recently been converted. As the migrants arrived in a bus, the officers protecting them were hit by glass bottles and stones, in the kind of scene that has often played out in some of the poorer areas of Rome, where migrants are usually housed. On Thursday, more protesters – some of whom took their children along – walked with torches and candles in a demonstration against the “fake migrants” and said they would not relent against the perceived injustice of having them so close to home.

It was the latest in a series of clashes that have flared up across Italy, where the influx this year of more than 80,000 asylum seekers, who have made the treacherous journey to Italy’s southern shore from Africa and the Middle East, is increasingly being met with exasperation and frustration – as well as racism – by some Italians who believe that an untenable burden has been foisted on their economically challenged country.

While some in Casale San Nicola believe Italy – and Europe – have a duty to assist the migrants, most interviewed by the Guardian were clearly disdainful of their new neighbours.

Sylvia Pilotti, a hairdresser who works just a few miles away from the new migrant centre, said: “They’re not really refugees. It’s not like they are coming from famine and war.

“When the bus arrived, the refugees were all very well dressed, with iPhones, and while the Italians there were screaming at them they were doing like this,” she said, holding up her middle finger. “Do you know what that means?”

Her elderly customer silently nodded in agreement.

Outside the hairdressers, Camilla, a 16-year-old student, took a drag on her cigarette and said she wants the migrants out.

She said: “They are right to protest. I live nearby.” When asked about the circumstances many of the new arrivals have faced – a dangerous voyage across the Mediterranean, and war and conflict at home – she said: “I have a different mentality. I think they shouldn’t come to Italy. The good people stay in their own countries and here they send the delinquents and the drunks, and they bother Italian girls, it’s not a nice thing.”

Stories that stoke people’s fears spread quickly. Camilla claimed that, just days earlier, a “black man” jumped out of a nearby rubbish container and raped and beat a girl. The local police said no such incident was reported.

Just down the road, a middle-aged man who was trying to sell upscale proposed residences out of an office in a trailer – and did not want to be identified – said he does not condone violence, but the protests were “right”.

“This area is a very high level area. Every villa has a value of €2m to €5m. It’s as if they put a gypsy camp in Parioli, the poshest neighbourhood of Rome, but they don’t do that,” he said, before lamenting that young girls dressed in “cute leggings” don’t jog in the neighborhood any more, because they are too scared of the migrants.

There have been no reports of violence by the area’s new arrivals, and the former school that is being used to house them is located at the end of a dusty road. The closest large structure, the local pool and tennis club, is 2km away.

Weeks after European leaders effectively scrapped a proposed system of mandatory quotas that would have spread the migrants who are arriving in Italy and Greece across 28 countries, the Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, is locked in heated political and logistical fights in regions and localities where conservative lawmakers are refusing to cooperate.

The increase in tensions on the outskirts of Rome, some say, is a reflection of the economic crisis in Italy coupled with disgust over the endless stories about the plundering of social programmes meant for migrants by corrupt officials.

Riccardo Magi, president of the leftwing-libertarian Radical party, said: “Instead of approaching immigration with a firm plan, it is always treated like an emergency. That way, the people who control the contracts [for the immigration centres] make more money.

“The number of refugees who have arrived would not be creating hardship if there was an established and functioning system to receive them.”

Magi and others believe Italy should be dispersing very small numbers of migrants across the country and focusing on integration with the local population, instead of creating large centres of hundreds and even thousands of migrants, who are often isolated in facilities that resemble detention centres.

Currently, migrants arrive in southern ports and are processed and sometimes fingerprinted in reception centres. Renzi’s government is seeking to disperse those who remain in Italy – about two-thirds move on to northern Europe – across the entire country, but that effort is being stymied by intense resistance from rightwing governors in northern Italy, who are opposed to the plan.

In Treviso, an area north of Venice, local residents recently protested violently against a plan to house 101 migrants in empty apartments. Some broke into the units, removed mattresses and other furniture and set them on fire.

Luca Zaia, the rightwing governor of the Veneto region, said the placement of the migrants was like a declaration of war and that his area was being “Africanised”.

In the region of Liguria, six mayors said they would only accept migrants if they could prove that they did not carry any infectious diseases, a ploy that was denounced by activists.

Sebastiano Maffettone, a professor and political scientist at LUISS University in Rome, said: “The politicians see that there is a hate toward the immigrants, and they try to exploit it for political reasons. The problem is that there is a mixture of populism and anti-foreign attitude that is becoming very popular.”

Alberto Barbieri, a doctor who helps run mobile health clinics for migrants in Rome and other areas of southern Italy, said that while protests in places such as Casale San Nicola are “unacceptable” – and being fomented by young members of the the fascist group CasaPound (named after the American poet Ezra Pound) – he has seen many acts of goodwill by Italians. He points to a spontaneous centre that has been started near Tiburtina train station in Rome, where hundreds of migrants who are in transit have gathered and faced “very critical physical and psychological situations”.

He said: “We have seen a mobilisation by Roman citizens, giving clothes, organising support, creating music shows, to say ‘welcome’.”

One of the biggest problems that has contributed to the current tensions, said Barbieri, is the lack of information in the public domain about what the migrants have survived to get to Italy. He said: “The ignorance is the fodder.”

The other problem is that the government has been incapable of responding to the scale of the crisis, particularly when it comes to processing asylum requests, which can take 18 months or more and are overwhelming the Italian bureaucracy, he said. Barbieri believes the structural and planning problems are making a bad situation even worse.

“You can imagine a victim of torture or rape, arriving in Mineo, you have to stay there, no one cares about you, your vulnerability increases, it does not improve,” he said, referring to the migrant centre in Sicily that houses 3,000 people.

The manner in which some towns and regions in Italy have said “we don’t know the migrants” is not altogether different from the way some European countries have denied their responsibility, Barbieri said.

“We don’t want to deny that if 170,000 land in a country, it is a problem,” he said, conceding the point that so many angry Italians have made. But he added: “Yes it is a problem. But it is not an unsolvable problem if you use rationale and have solidarity.”

Source: The Guardian

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