The racist roots of Italy’s anti-immigrant movement
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.”