The growing tide of xenophobia in Italy

The growing tide of xenophobia in Italy

A cultivated man, he would prefer not to find himself called on every other day to comment on a rising tide of xenophobic political rhetoric-and, inevitably, on the racist attacks . But when 19-year-old Italian-born Abdul Salam Guibre was clubbed to death near Milan station last year, he was too alarmed to hold his tongue: “It’s a climate reminiscent of Mississipi Burning,” he said.
This is the backdrop to the nasty little publicity stunt dreamed up by the mayor of the town of Coccaglio: calling a campaign of municipal police checks on the homes of immigrant workers to flush out those whose permits might have expired, “White Christmas.”

As if the streets of Coccaglio, now home to a sizeable immigrant community, are to be restored to the paler skin shades of old by rounding up a few overstayers and packing them off to spend Christmas in a detention centre. The campaign will close on December 25.

Faced with a British journalist who had travelled all the way out to this prosperous little town to understand how a politician in Italy today can get away with such a gross provocation, the mayor, Franco Claretti, a member of the Northern League party, claimed the name of the campaign was a media prank.

A prank, it should be said, in which he has revelled. The mayor says he is just applying Italy's new immigration law, which rules that non-EU residents who lose their job have just six months in which to find another employer or they lose their right to stay. He has the support of Italy’s interior minister, Roberto Maroni, another League member, who has expressed gratitude for the hands-on approach of Coccaglio’s administrators. There is no serious stigma attached to the use of racist language in Italy today. Umberto Bossi, minister for reform and founder of the Northern League, has called African migrants ‘bingo-bongos.’ The prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, seemed to be vying with the League when he remarked earlier this year that the streets of Milan reminded him ‘of an African city’ these days.
 And, as we know, Berlusconi has not only cheerfully (and embarassingly) remarked that the new president of the US was ‘tanned,’ he compounded that by commenting, on his return from a visit to the White House this year, that “the president's wife is tanned too,” to the cheerful hoots of his fans.

 We were at the height of this summer’s sex scandals and Berlusconi had been held at arm's length by a cautious Michelle Obama: after kissing everybody else, including Gordon Brown, she had stuck to a handshake with the Italian prime minister.
Italy, along with Spain, has one of Europe’s fastest-growing immigrant populations. Non-Italians contribute a good 5 per cent to the country’s GDP. But it doesn’t look as though the country's politicians, or indeed the national media, are concerned about the need to ease the national psyche.

With some exceptions. As if in response to Coccaglio’s rather sinister ‘White Christmas,’ the town of Sassari in Sardinia has announced its own ‘black and white Christmas,’ a festival of European and African religious music.
Both in homes and public buildings in Italy, as well as churches, the presepe – or nativity scene – is a frequent alternative to the Christmas tree. Just down the road from Coccaglio, in Verona, the press were invited when the chief prosecutor proudly laid out some of the dark figures of the local court’s ‘black presepe.’
 There was no need to explain. As both local bishops and some bloggers have pointed out, Joseph and Mary were immigrants searching for shelter themselves when they pitched up in the stable.

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