Monday, January 11, 2010

Shooting at immigrants: the case of Italy

Last week's riots highlighted the explosive combination of modern slavery, organised crime and racism.

The old saying that history tends to repeat itself is looking particularly true these days. Last week the Southern Italian region of Calabria ('the toe of the boot') became the theatre of a depressing anti-immigrant witchhunt eerily reminiscent of last century's Ku Klux Klan violence in the US.

First off, the background. Like in most of Europe, fruit-picking is carried out by immigrants, except that in the South of Italy, those are largely underpaid and illegal - under the ruthless watch of the local mafia (n'drangheta), one of the most powerful groups of organised crime in the country.

Reports suggest that up to twenty thousand illegal immigrants in the region are paid £20 for a 12 or 14-hour working day minus a £5 'fee' handed to their gangmasters for transport and "protection".

They live in appalling conditions, amassed in rat-infested warehouses with no light and poor sanitation and with nothing to do but work and sleep - effectively becoming profit fodder for the n'drangheta. Every morning they are rounded up together, packed into rusty trucks and driven to orange or olive groves.

Last month, a report by Italian daily la Repubblica highlighted a ticking bomb, comparing the migrants' living conditions to concentration camps. "About seven hundred of them live jam-packed into a derelict paper mill", wrote reporter Carlo Ciavoni. In the article, volunteers from Doctors without Borders described an alarming high rate of respiratory illnesses amongst the migrants, "mostly due to fumes coming from the fires they start in the warehouse to cook and keep warm ".

Calabria is also the poorest and least developed Italian region. The grip of organised crime is visible at all levels. Many councils in the area were long ago "dissolved" on suspicion of mafia infiltration and provisionally handed to a commissioner.

The levels of unemployment are staggering: 28.3 per cent with peaks of 65 per cent amongs those under-25. Per capita income is 50 per cent the corresponding value in the Centre-North of the country.

It is against this background that one of the ugliest pages of European history was written last week. On Tuesday a legal immigrant from Togo was wounded in a random pellet-gun attack which was reportedly carried out for fun by youths associated with the local mafia clans.

This became the spark for the immigrants' frustration. Obviously letting off steam for their subhuman exploitation, hundreds took to the streets of a town called Rosarno. According to the BBC, "the protesters clashed with police in riot gear [...]. Cars were burned and shop windows smashed. Many shouted 'We are not animals' and carried signs saying 'Italians here are racist'".

It's at this point that Ku Klux Klan-style lynching took over. In succession, immigrants were runover by cars (and in one failed attempt, a bulldozer), more locals began shooting at any non-white person they could spot (injuring several) and, in many cases, gangs of youths beat up migrant workers with iron bars. Amongst shouts of "negroes out", about thirty immigrants ended up in hospital.

Things turned even uglier when volunteers who were spotted taking meals and warm clothes to the migrants became the target of a spontaneous local residents' demonstration. A crew from national television RAI was pelted with stones and, according to peacereporter, journalists were threatened with phrases ranging from "don't you dare take photos" to "mind your own fuckin business".

In the end, three hundred policemen were called into the area to save the immigrants from being lynched. Most migrants have now been evacuated from the area and scattered around asylum centres around Italy, while encampments have been bulldozed by the authorities.

In the midst of all this mayhem, the target chosen by Home Secretary Roberto Maroni, from the far-right Northern League, was clear: "In all these years illegal immigration has been tolerated without doing anything effective, an immigration that on the one hand has fed crime and on the other has led to situations of extreme squalor such as that at Rosarno". "All the clandestine ones will be expelled. Someone could have died there", he added.

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