Italy: Migrants – victims of racism

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 236 December 2013/January 2014

The tragedy that took place off the coast of Lampedusa on 3 October 2013, killing at least 359 people, shook the conscience of many in Italy and elsewhere. When Prime Minister Enrico Letta and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso arrived on the island to pay hypocritical tribute to the victims, boos and heckling greeted them. Lampedusans understand all too well that token gestures from politicians will not prevent migrants who are fleeing desperate poverty or civil wars from trying to cross the Mediterranean.

The island is at the centre of migration routes due to its proximity to the north coast of Africa – 70 miles at the nearest point. Frontex (the European Union agency for external border security) might beef up its patrols near the narrow strait that separates Sicily from Tunisia, but a sea border cannot be sealed off. This year alone, 12,000 migrants made it to Lampedusa; over the last decade at least 20,000 have drowned attempting the crossing.

The migrants are a boon to human traffickers of all kinds. A well-organised network of smugglers, with links to the Italian mafia, helps migrants reach European shores after paying £1,200 and £3,000 per person. This is where slave labour begins for many.

For most refugees, Italy is only the first stage towards a destination further north. To finance that onward journey, and to repay the smugglers and the Mafia, migrants are hired by Italian ‘entrepreneurs’ to work as slave labourers; tomato and grape production, for example, rely heavily on cheap labour. The local ’Ndrangheta mafia dominates the vegetable and fruit business in that part of Italy.

Corrupt local authorities do little to protect these workers since many of their members benefit directly from this exploitation. It was therefore an act of gross hypocrisy when on 8 October 2013, Prime Minister Enrico Letta decided to grant Italian citizenship posthumously to those who had drowned. That generosity did not extend to the shipwreck survivors.

Meanwhile, racism is on the rise and Italy’s fascist past is being resuscitated. Italy’s Minister for Integration, Cécile Kyenge, who is black, has been the target of attack, most notoriously in July by Roberto Calderoli of the far-right Lega Nord party and vice-president of the Senate, who compared her to an orang-utan. He remains in post. It was Calderoli who declared, after Italy’s win against France in the World Cup final in 2006, that Italy’s victory was ‘that of our identity, by which [the Italian team] won against a team that sacrificed its identity by calling forth negroes, Islamists and communists’.          

Dario Chiaradonna


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