What Italy’s election results mean for migrants

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What Italy’s election results mean for migrants

Hsiao-Hung Pai reports from Sicily. The far-right victory in the general election on 6 March 2018 means more fear and uncertainty for migrants and asylum seekers.


Migrants in a shelter in San Giuseppe Jato, Sicily. Photo: Hsiao-Hung Pai

On the evening before Italy’s 2018 general election, volunteers sat watching as the results of the exit polls arrived. The volunteers were inside Porco Rosso, a cultural association for migrants in Palermo, Sicily,

They watched Berlusconi as he laughed about his success in bringing the far-right into the centre of Italy’s politics. A young asylum seeker from Senegal talked outside to his friend. He seemed to think that because he couldn’t change anything, it was better to keep quiet. Volunteers arrived at the door. One of the volunteers, Rabih Ja’afar, from the University of Palermo, shook his head and said: ‘It’s all going to be worse now.’

In Sicily 62 per cent voted, the lowest in the country. Many young people, including university students, didn’t vote because they are disappointed with politics. ‘In the end, it’s older people that decide the election results,’ Ja’afar said. ‘And older voters usually prefer to vote for the rightwing and they’re bringing far-right politics back.’

As the results of the election came, the winners were the parties with the most anti-migrant, populist ideas. Nationally the Five Star Movement (M5S) was the largest single party with 231 seats (32.22 per cent of the vote). The far-right La Lega (The League, which was Lega Nord, Northern League) received 123 seats (17.69 per cent). Five Star used the election to speak about a minimum monthly income, labour laws, and a hard migration policy that brought itself closer to La Lega. Five Star’s leader Luigi Di Maio wants an end to the ‘sea taxi service’ that rescues migrants from the Mediterranean. His ideas are similar to Matteo Salvini, leader of La Lega. Five Star saw increased support in the south. In Sicily, it won all 28 seats.

This was no surprise after the racism and racist violence in the election campaign. On 3 February, in Macerata, a small town in central Italy, Luca Traini shot and injured six African migrants. In the past Luca Traini was a candidate for La Lega. After the attack, Traini stopped at the town’s war memorial, gave a fascist salute and shouted, ‘Viva I’Italia.’

The attack in Macerata was the result of racial politics that started with the economic crash ten years ago. There is no real difference between Traini’s attack and the people on television calling for deportations of migrants. Anti-migrant ideas are at the centre of Italy’s politics like the ideas that led to the murder of British MP Jo Cox.

Political parties attract the interest of the public by blaming migrants for the poor economy. Italy has high levels of public debt and an 11.4 per cent unemployment rate. But the migrants are not to blame. In fact, they have helped the country. Like migrant workers arriving over the years in Italy, migrants from Africa have filled the jobs left by youth emigration. Youth unemployment is up to 36 per cent. And migrant workers are helping many industries.

Most of Italy’s 620,000 migrants are not in the state asylum reception system. They are working in agriculture and other jobs that local people do not want to do. These migrant workers suffer the bad working conditions of past centuries and help industries to be successful. People do not see them as having rights or protections. Italy’s politicians never talk about labour laws to protect them but see migrants as a serious problem.

Matteo Salvini of La Lega has brought anti-migrant hatred for years. La Lega promises deportations to Africa as part of completely changing migration policies. Even after the Macerata terrorist attack, Berlusconi blamed migrants. He promised to deport 600,000 of them. The fascist party Forza Nuova (New Power) is one of the far-right organizations involved in the Bologna bombing that killed 85 people in 1980. They had a demonstration in Macerata, where the leader Roberto Fiore called the fascist shooter a ‘victim’.

The situation is the same in Sicily. In recent years, people’s ideas about migrants have changed with difficult economic times and wrong ideas in the media about the ‘refugee crisis’. Alberto Biondo is a migrant rights activist in Palermo. He tells me, ‘We’re going back in time with the decision to close all the borders and have more security. This means more nationalism that seemed hidden since World War Two but is now returning with greater force.’

In Sicily, migrants meet racism mostly not on the street but in the shelters and camps. It is of course in the shelters and camps that they should feel safe. Modou is from Gambia. They have moved him from shelter to shelter for two years. When I met him in 2016, he was in a very busy camp in Messina. Later they moved him to Agrigento and then to Licata. When he was 18-years-old, the manager of the camp suddenly told him that they were sending him to Villa Sikania camp in Siculiana. This is miles away from his friends in the same camp as him. The manager said that this was because he was no longer under 18 and so the camp did not have to give him a place. Modou was very disappointed and asked to go to a camp for adults in Licata. His friends were all he had in this country. But the manager said no, ‘The police will organise you, not us.’

When Modou arrived at Villa Sikania, he saw it was an emergency camp in a hotel. There were hundreds of people, mostly from Senegal and Eritrea. ‘There are no rooms to sleep in. Sixty of us sleep in the hall,’ he said anxiously. ‘I don’t understand why they’re doing this to me.’ Friends could not visit Modou because the camp has a lot of police and they do not allow visitors. The migrants there had to wait for a long time to move - some more than two years. When he asked when he might move, the staff were not helpful and said, ‘It’ll be next week.’ ‘It’ll be next month.’

Modou told me one evening that he was so stressed that he couldn’t sleep. ‘I feel so unhappy about living this life. It’s too much.’

Life inside shelters and camps shows young migrants, including children, where they stand in Europe. For Modou and everyone in these shelters, racism is part of the system which thinks they deserve bad treatment.

Sicily’s move to the right in politics was clear in local elections last November. Matteo Renzi’s centrist Democratic Party lost power and Five Star became the island’s largest party with nearly 35 per cent of the vote. The centre-right candidate Nello Musumeci won with 39 per cent of the vote, and was Sicily's new governor. Musumeci had the support of Italy's most important parties on the right: Berlusconi's Forza Italia (Go Italy), FDL (Brothers of Italy), and La Lega.

Most migrants know they are at the centre of a political debate – a debate which does not include them. There is a lot of fear about the future. The clear signs of changes are on the walls in the streets of Palermo. There are posters of anti-fascist marches everywhere.

This shows the growing threat of racist political forces. Anti-racist activists are mostly from small leftwing groups and they are quick to organize.

Palermo’s anti-fascists showed their strength with thousands of protestors on 24 February. This was the day Roberto Fiore, leader of Forza Nuova. was coming to town. Alaji is a young man from Gambia. He joined the march. He said his friends were so frightened of fascists in town that they didn’t come to the march. Partly because of fear, very few from ethnic minorities were there but Alaji decided that he should join the march.

As the vote came to an end, Modou called me from Siculiana and told me that a local man in Florence shot dead a Senegalese street seller. It frightened him a lot. He was worried and asked me what the election results were like. For him, the new power of parties like La Lega means an even more uncertain life in this country.

Hsiao-Hung Pai’s new book is ‘Bordered Lives: How Europe Fails Refugees and Migrants’ (New Internationalist),

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: https://newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2018/03/06/italy-election-analysis-migrant-racism-hsiao-hung-pai

(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).