CREMA, Italy — As I was walking home, a man in his 70s, wearing a youthful shirt and sporting fiercely dark hair, stopped me in the main square, under the spire of the ancient Duomo. He introduced himself, then said he’d had a tough life, working as a cow milker on a farm since he was a child. He didn’t understand why I was so soft on migrants, in my writing and on television.
“I want them out,” he said.
“All of them?” I asked.
“All of them. Every single one.”
“Who will care for you when you grow older?” I asked him. “All caregivers are foreigners — from Eastern Europe, South America, Sri Lanka and the Philippines.”
“Italians will do that!” he snapped back.
“I doubt it,” I answered. “Italians are no longer interested in those jobs. They don’t want your old job either. Milkers in the Po Valley these days are from India; farm laborers in the Mezzogiorno come from Africa; even our bars and restaurants are now staffed by foreigners. Are you sure you want them out? Italy will grind to a halt.” He looked at me, mumbled something and walked away.
Have I convinced my fellow Italian that in an aging country like ours, immigration is quite simply a necessity? Maybe. Certainly he listened. But there are millions who don’t want to hear this unpalatable truth. And their number — as the round of local elections on Sunday showed — is growing. They voted for the League, whose anti-immigration stance is relentless. You’ll never hear Matteo Salvini, the League’s vociferous leader, remind his voters that this year the number of African migrants rescued off the Libyan coast decreased dramatically — to 11,288, a drop of 84 percent — from 2017. Nonetheless, Mr. Salvini, who is also the new interior minister, talks about “invasion” and “voracious NGOs.” (By rescuing so many from the sea, they are seen to be encouraging even more to come.) He says he’ll shut down Italian harbors. He has even called for a census just of Roma. His popularity soared.
Are Italians racist? No. They are just misled, angry, scared and confused.
To begin with, Italians of all political persuasions are irritated by the way immigration has been mismanaged. Italy’s foreign-born population is at 8.3 percent — in the realm of the European average — and mainly concentrated in the northern, wealthier half of the country. Half come from within Europe, 23 percent from Romania alone.
The problem then is not numbers. It’s the perception of losing control. The process of applying for political asylum — a well-intentioned charade, since only a fraction of African migrants are entitled to that protection — takes at least 18 months. During that time, thousands of young men — 611,000 since 2005 — have not been allowed to work. So they roam the streets, often begging for money. Once they are denied asylum and are ordered to leave the country, they don’t. They often disappear and slide into petty crime or slavery. Why hasn’t any government proposed a temporary job permit that, even if the asylum request is turned down, would grant some priority for a future visa application? It’s a mystery.
Is this reason enough for a large country to be afraid? Probably not. But the potential for mass, uncontrolled immigration is there. Africa is just a few miles from Sicily, and political leaders like Mr. Salvini gain popularity by frightening voters. Public discourse about immigration, in the past couple of years, has become irrational. The sight of idle young men on street corners is considered a provocation by many in a country where salaries don’t rise, the economy grows slowly and the health services and schools — though good — are underfunded and stretched to the limit.
Italians are also angered by the European Union. The so-called Dublin Regulation requires asylum seekers to make their application in the first E.U. country they arrive in. Most of the time — you can’t fight geography — that is Italy or Greece. Successive Italian governments have insisted that this rule be changed, but have failed.
And Italy and Greece are not equal in this respect. Greece is protected by an expensive deal the E.U. signed in 2016 with Turkey, which acts as a bouncer, preventing refugees from entering the Balkans and reaching Hungary, Croatia, Austria and Germany. The only recourse: A dangerous voyage on the Mediterranean.
Will the European Council meeting this week repeal or change the Dublin Regulation? Unlikely, because most countries are interested more in sealing Europe’s external borders than in sharing the asylum seekers within them.
But bigotry, fear and greed are not part of our national character or history. We Italians have been migrants ourselves — in northern Europe, the United States, South America and Australia. From 1861, when modern Italy was born, to 1985 about 30 million left the country seeking a better life elsewhere. In times good and bad, Italy’s people can always be depended on to be unimpressed by their leaders, and that includes when they’re told to reduce themselves to tolerating outright cruelty. It happened in 1938, after Benito Mussolini, in a tragic attempt to ape Adolf Hitler, passed the so-called “racial laws” to persecute Italian Jews. Some Italians, to their shame, went along with it; but many more helped their friends and neighbors, and saved lives. The real test, now, would come if we were asked to accept something as brutal as, say, separating asylum-seeking families by grabbing children and babies from their mothers’ arms at the border. But I can tell you — here the family is sacred. They will never go for that.
Giuseppe Conte, the new prime minister, wants to please his masters — the League and the Five Star Movement. So he proudly defines himself as a populist. History has put him, a little-known law professor, in the spotlight. But he must remember this: If his government behaves in a way the world considers inhuman, it’s that for which he will be remembered.
So, is Italy irritated, scared, annoyed, confused? Yes. But racist? Not yet.
This article was published by The New York Times of the 27th of June 2018.