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Xenophobia and populism: electoral weapons in Italy

Hate speech towards migrants spreading through the political spectrum from far right and Berlusconi to Beppe Grillo, is the main issue in Italy's electoral campaign. But there is a fightback. Español

lead The Northern League rally against the Ius Soli ('right of the soil') as Italy's centre-left government was forced to delay a vote on a contentious law granting citizenship to immigrants' children born in Italy, December 10, 2017. NurPhoto/ Press Association. All rights reserved.On February 3, in the city of Macerata, a 28-year-old man opened fire on a group of black immigrants, wounded six of them and made the fascist salute moments before being arrested. This event, which has shocked Italy, is not entirely new: it brings to mind other attacks against migrant population such as the murder of Nigerian Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi in 2016 by a right-wing extremist in the city of Fermo, or the 2011 Florence massacre, in which a member of the neo-Nazi group CasaPound murdered two Senegalese and wounded a third, taking his own life after that. 

Many believe that this racist violence is just the tip of an iceberg that is being built day by day with words. Macerata's crime has not lacked its defenders (many see it as revenge for the murder of Pamela Mastropietro, for which a Nigerian man has been arrested). Among those people is Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right group Liga Norte (Northern League), who blames the government for episodes like this one, for having allowed "hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to come here without any limit," since "out-of-control immigration leads to social conflict". 

In its search for the common enemy, the Northern League, dedicated in its day to sowing division between the north and south of Italy, is now focusing on immigration and calls for the defense of the white race (supposedly "endangered", an argument shared with most European fascist groups). Coincidentally or not, the alleged murderer of Macerata was a candidate for this party last year in the city of Corridonia.  

The `Liga´ is a master in creating hostility towards the foreigner in the style of Le Pen to win votes, especially in the pre-electoral climate that precedes the Italian elections on March 4. But it is not the only one: all its ideological brothers play the same card. These are far-right populist, aggressive parties full of Mussolini followers, who are getting more and more support and conquering new municipalities, reaching even the Italian Parliament.

And they are, above all, xenophobic. Among them is Forza Nuova, a Catholic group at war with immigration and abortion, or the Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy), whose candidate, Georgia Meloni, declared that ships leaving Libya with immigrants to Europe "should be stopped before they sail". Also the already-mentioned CasaPound, the neo-Nazi party emerging from a social movement squat in 2003, with links to Golden Dawn in Greece and Hogar Social in Spain, which has covered several cities with thousands of posters calling for an end to the "invasion" of immigrants and proclaiming that "those who flee the war do not deserve respect,". Their leader, Simone di Stefano, has insinuated that the problem is "false refugees" who "are not entitled to remain" in the country.  

The right-wing coalition is completed by Forza Italia, Berlusconi's party. The man four times Prime Minister of Italy has joined Trump in his virulently hostile ambitions regarding  migration,  including the promise of massive deportations of "illegal" immigrants, a position pro the agreement with Libya and opposed to the ius soli, the law that grants citizenship to immigrants born in Italy. According to the very media-prone Cavaliere, "only 5% of those in Italy, around 30,000, have the right to remain refugees. The other 600,000 represent a social bomb ready to be exploited that only the center-right government could deactivate". 

Not just the far-right 

And what about the rest of the political spectrum? Surprisingly, this anti-immigration discourse is not an exclusive vote-hunting tool of minority and radicalized right-wing groups. The collective Cronache di ordinari razzismo warns that the entire political debate "is deeply imbued with hatred, intolerance and xenophobia". In a country where inequality and poverty are growing, it is immigration that is playing the leading role in the electoral campaign. It´s worth remembering that Italy is a country with 10% of immigration and that, despite the fact that arrivals have declined in recent years (partly thanks to the much criticized agreement with Libya), it remains one of the main recipient countries for refugees arriving in Europe: a situation that is leading many political parties to take advantage of this anti-immigrant sentiment in a war for undecided votes (as is happening in countries such as Hungary or the Czech Republic).  

In fact, a report by the Spanish porCausa Foundation, which has analyzed the political discourse of 13 European countries, focusing on what politicians say on the issue of immigration, has alerted us to the apparently unstoppable rise of xenophobia as well as something even more surprising and worrying: it is not only extreme right or conservative parties who use this kind of populist discourse based in hatred and discrimination, but also the center or center-left parties have been "infected" by this rhetoric in the search of an easy electoral gain. 

While we can find a few voices on the left defending a system of asylum and security with safe and legal routes (mostly in the Center-Left Alliance and parties such as Piú Europe, Insieme, the Popular Civic List or Liberi e Uguali) – the other centre and democratic parties have joined in the chorus welcoming restrictive migratory policies, and are using messages that associate immigration with insecurity.

One example is the government of Renzi's Democratic Party, which approved the Minniti's Decree in 2017 (a decree law that, among other things, increases detention centers and prohibits the appeal of rejected immigrants) and which supports border outsourcing, an attitude towards migration that has led one of its founding fathers, Gad Lerner, to quit the party. 

And another example that illustrates all too well the thesis of porCausa is that of Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), the favourite according to recent polls. The party, led by Luigi Di Maio, has also called for the deportation of irregulars, disseminated theories about the connection between NGOs and human traffickers, while one of its founders, Beppe Grillo, was criticized for comparing immigrants with rats on Twitter and joking about the possibility that the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, might set off a bomb in Westminster. 

In short, his is a speech against foreigners and migrants that has its reward in votes (according to a January survey of Swg, a "hard line against immigrants" in any campaign could expect a rise in  30% of electoral support), at the same time that it can only affect the perception of the population regarding immigration in a negative way. Ilvo Diamanti, a professor at the University of Urbino, explains that "the fear of immigration is growing to record limits, almost one in two Italians has it", something that he blames more on the statements of politicians and their representations in the media than on any immigrants themselves.

Indeed, although the constant message that more immigration equals more insecurity and crime has more and more influence every day (33% of Italians consider that immigration is one of the most important problems of the country according to a study of 2017, while in 2013 it was only concerned at 4%), the reality is different: as shown by these graphs created by Donato di Carlo, an Italian researcher living in Germany, crime in Italy has decreased in recent years, "despite"the fact that the foreign population has increased.

As we can imagine,this hatred translates into discrimination and violence: In 2016, the UNAR opened 2,939 investigations for reported cases of discrimination, of which 2,652 were relevant and 69% referred to discriminatory acts for ethnic-racial reasons. Meanwhile, according to the ODIHR (Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights) of the OECD, of the 555 hate crimes reported in 2015 in Italy,369 were racially or xenophobicly motivated.

It is "a racism that is built and reproduced on a daily basis", not only with words but also with "migration laws, European directives, the bad practices of the local police headquarters, the precariousness of work and the residential permits", clarify the Coordinamento Migranti Bologna group. And at the end of all this mixture of hatred, discrimination and disinformation we find crimes such as Macerata´s.

Fighting hate 

Although some immigrants admit to feeling fear after the attack and even feeling like "a target" because of their skin color, there are many voices of resistance against this racism from parties and institutions, that materialized in the great demonstration that gathered some 20,000 people in Macerata a few days later: a meeting that demonstrates the importance that this issue is getting in Italian society, but which has been preceded by many other initiatives carried out by people who work every day to build a more tolerant, and informed society, free of xenophobic prejudices. 

At the beginning of the 1990s, when the phenomenon of immigration became an important issue in Italy, associations such as Stop Racism were born, as well as the birth of many other initiatives until the present economic crisis and lack of work led to a backlash. For example La Casa dei diritti sociali, a network of NGOs created in 1984 by volunteer workers who joined in solidarity to help after a fire, still to this day, more than thirty years later, provides asylum, legal and cultural orientation to immigrants and refugees. Then there is the aforementioned Cronache di ordinari razzismo, the platform created in 2011 and dedicated to documenting and denouncing the phenomenon of racism through a database where they have collected more than 5,000 cases of racism and xenophobia in the media, society at large, politics and institutions. 

There are also initiatives that work towards the end of the CIE (Identification and Expulsion Centers) and in the C.A.R.A. (Shelters for asylum seekers), such as ODA - Centro di Osservazione sulla Detenzione Amministrativa, or the "LasciateCIEntrare" campaign, which was born as a result of the prohibition of access to the press within the CIE, declared in circular 1305 on April 1, 2011, but forced by them to withdraw the circular in May 2011. 

The borders are also a breeding ground for solidarity initiatives. Progetto20k is a group of men and women who monitor the situation in Ventimiglia, the city near the border with France which has become a camp for immigrants in transit; they offer information to the migrant people about their rights and the safest way to make their trip, and denounce abuses against them. The Ventimiglia Non-Borders Camp was born in June 2015 when a group of migrants resisted a police eviction and, as they explain, from that day they continued working creating solidarity networks in different places, in order to build "a permanent laboratory of resistance to repressive politics".

Also the Baobab Experiencie group, a collective of volunteers that emerged in 2015, offers information, asylum, food, language classes, psychological and health assistance, etc. to immigrants in transit. These are just a few examples that guarantee, in the face of the massive power of the media and populism, that tolerance and respect towards the migrants in our midst still exist after all.  

About the author

Diana Moreno is a Spanish journalist who focuses on human rights, workers rights and migration issues. She contributes to many newspapers and magazines including Diagonal,, Global Voices and El Mundo. Follow her on twitter @_diana_moreno_.


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