Regions in southern Italy have long been host to numerousimmigrant workers. In recent months, however, international media outlets have highlighted the inherent racism in the area.
The problem is, in fact, quite multifaceted. Italy, known as a hotbed of immigration (and emigration) in Europe, is presently witnessing the byproduct of institutionalized racism. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi recently summed up his government's view, one that does not invite the political or economic diversity of an immigrant population.“The left wants a multiethnic society – we don't,” Berlusconi said of his center-right coalition government. Statements such as that, which are common in Italian politics, emphasize the deep social divide amongst politicians and their constituents. Ideas like immigrant reform are indeed hot topics in Italy, as more that 5 percent of the country's population is labeled legal immigrants. Countless immigrants work and live in Italy illegally. This notable proportion of the population (especially in rural areas) makes economic waves for the country, which is similar to other developed nations like the US and France. A closer look reveals much of the racism to have roots far below the surface, signaling a systemic problem in society.
That very issue of racism came to the forefront with a series of riots and attacks in January. In rural Calabria, a region in Southern Italy (think of it as the “toe” of Italy's boot shape), poor immigrants clashed with poor residents after tensions rose to extreme levels. During the three-day riots, nearly 50 people were injured (including police officers and immigrants workers alike). Italian journalist Jean-Léonard Touadi compared the scene to Alabama in the 1920s – an explosion of vitriol and xenophobia.
International news outlets, such as CNN and The New York Times' bureau in Rome, were quick to report the story, focusing on the surface-level racism that plagues much of Italy. As the story unfolded, things began to take a different shape.
Some Italian officials and journalists quietly pointed fingers at local crime syndicates in the area – namely, 'Ndrangheta, a notorious outfit based in Calabria. According to journalist Giulio D'Eramo, an Italian journalist presently based in England, that organization recently became “the richest and strongest criminal organization in Italy” - trumping Sicily's Cosa Nostra.
'Ndrangheta’s history goes back about 150 years. The group's mission tends to focus on draining the central power of the region or country. In that sense, the group co-opted the arrival of immigrants and nudged them into “subhuman conditions, without human rights,” according to Flavio Di Giacomo, the spokesman for the International Organization for Migration in Italy, who is quoted by Rachel Donadio in The New York Times.
Immigrant workers, seeking the only viable alternative to Berlusconi's anti-immigrant policies, often turn to such horrid situations for their livelihoods. Those very workers then produce much of the food that comes from the region – food that is often exported to other countries. Considering that, it is clear that criminal syndicates and similar groups are exploiting the racial tension of southern Italy for their own economic gain.
The South, which is an agricultural-based economic area, is seen as the breeding ground for racism, as well as its foil - antiracist activism. That phenomenon is worsened by the fact that southern Italy has some of the highest unemployment rates in Europe.
“As far as southern Italy is concerned, the worst aspect is that the south no longer believes in itself. They are resigned to things as they are,” Gian Antonio Stella said in an interview with Federica Zoja of ResetDoc. Stella is a writer for Corriere della Sera, an Italian daily based in Milan.
Getting into those southern regions is a complex matter for immigrants. Often, transportation across the Mediterranean will cost an individual upwards of $10,000. Once in the target European country (Spain also attracts many migrants), many will settle and integrate into the working economy. In Italy, this typically means evading the government's deportation policies and siding with the power of organized crime.
Such powers, like 'Ndrangheta for instance, wield a mighty sword over the silent populace. While racism is allegedly the culprit in times of distress, it seems that people are hesitant to cast blame at organized crime – a significant instigator of systemic problems like racism. Such realities shed light on the influence that non-governmental groups can harness over people.
With the local media warping the situation by focusing only on aspects of the sickness, rather than the whole of it, the problem atrophies. Though Italy has such a grand connection with immigration, those local newspapers and broadcast stations (many of which are somehow owned by Berlusconi) rarely touch the topic. When they do, it’s in the vein of nationalism or finger pointing.
The Holy See often speaks out against such silences and misdirection. Pope Benedict XVI said that “one can defend the legacy of a people, but one cannot live on an island separated from the rest of the world, especially today.” The fact that the world is becoming a sort of global village is something that Italians will have to contend with in terms of their politics, civil societies, economics and their relations in the European Union.