The racist roots of Italy’s anti-immigrant movement

Sunday 11/06/2017
Unfounded allegations. Carmelo Zuccaro, the chief prosecutor of the Sicilian port city of Catania, at the Senate defence committee in Rome, on May 3. (Reuters)

Milan - The influx of thousands of migrants and refugees to Italy has sparked a pro­liferation of conspiracy theories about collusion between human rights NGOs and human traffickers.
Carmelo Zuccaro, a public pros­ecutor in Sicily, said on Italian ra­dio in May that international NGOs “are in contact with human traffick­ers” and “some of them could be fi­nanced” by human smugglers. Zuc­caro claimed “the destabilisation of the Italian economy” was the goal for both parties.
Italy’s location along the Mediter­ranean has it on the front lines in dealing with migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa.
For decades, immigration to Italy was minimal, even as France, Ger­many and the United Kingdom wel­comed thousands of immigrants, many from former colonies or over­seas territories.
That changed when thousands of immigrants from as far as Peru, Ni­geria and Bangladesh and as close as Romania arrived and formed com­munities in Italian cities and towns. The rapid change shocked the coun­try, which some experts say was built on cultural and material rac­ism, including internal discrimina­tion towards southern Italians by those in the more prosperous north.
Zuccaro’s claim that human smug­glers colluded with NGOs — includ­ing Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children — quickly spread. Luigi Di Maio, a prominent parlia­mentarian with the Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement), Italy’s insurgent populist and most popular political party, was quick to echo the sentiment. Matteo Salvini, who leads the Eurosceptic, anti-im­migrant Liga Nord (LN) party, said NGO workers should be arrested and rescue boats sunk.
In 2016, the European Union’s border agency, Frontex, said there were “clear indications before de­parture on the precise direction to be followed to reach the NGOs’ boats,” the Washington Post report­ed. The Financial Times wrote that Frontex had accused charities of colluding with smugglers but Fron­tex denied the report.
Zuccaro admitted he had no evi­dence to support his claim but he and a host of other figures continue to spread it. Experts said Zuccaro’s charge is built on racist sentiment against Arabs and Africans that is pervasive in Italy.
“Italian society is built on rac­ism,” said Miguel Mellino, professor of postcolonial studies at the Uni­versita Orientale in Naples. “The first racial law was in 1937 and was a form of Italian apartheid in Ethio­pia and Somalia.”
Racism in Italy historically was based on the north/south divide. The more economically prosperous north looks down on the “crimi­nal” south, whose residents often flocked north for work or a better life. The animus towards southern­ers was reflected in the country’s prisons. “In the ‘50s and before, people in jail were almost entirely from the south and now they are migrants,” Melino said. “It’s how the Italian system manages migra­tion.”
A common claim in Italy is that the new immigrants bring crime. “I used to be able to leave my door open but now I can’t let my wife walk to church alone,” said Alberto, an Italian man from out­side Milan who is married to an Ivorian immigrant.
Such claims are regularly re­peated for political currency. The LN has historically led the way in espousing the most blatantly racist rhetoric. Mario Borghezio, a Euro­pean parliamentarian representing the LN, was recently ordered to pay $55,690 by a Milan court for making repeated racist slurs against Italy’s first black minister, Cécile Kyenge. In a 2013 radio interview, Borghezio claimed that Kyenge wanted to “bring her tribal traditions to Italy.”
The Movimento Cinque Stelle does not use the same sort of ex­plicitly racist or white supremacist language expressed by the LN, pre­ferring instead what experts term “dog whistles” — inferences that re­call racist stereotypes without ex­plicitly using racial epitaphs. Party leader Beppe Grillo was accused in 2015 of comparing immigrants to rats.
“The Movimento Cinque Stelle is often silent or has no active role in solidarity,” said Camilla Haw­thorne, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley who researches racist attitudes in the United States and Italy. “They try to appeal to the nebulous cat­egory of people that they are ‘real Italians’ and are against ‘foreign in­cursions’.”
Despite such claims, the Movi­mento Cinque Stelle is Italy’s most supported political party, polling at around 30%. To understand how it can maintain such high-level support while using inflamma­tory language against migrants and refugees, one must consult Italian history.
“The history of northern Italy [in particular] is one of widespread prejudice,” said Marcello Maneri, a professor of sociology at the Uni­versity of Milano-Bicocca. “Rac­ism towards southern Italy was replaced in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s with racism towards those outside the European Union. One result has been reactions marked by prejudice, discrimination and fear from people abroad.”