Far-right parties push immigration to the centre of Italian election debate

As Italy heads to the polls Sunday to elect its 65th government in seven decades, far-right parties have pushed immigration to the forefront of the debate.

Urgent issues of employment and relationship with EU are overshadowed by 'extreme positions'

Forza Italia's Silvio Berlusconi, left, and the League's Matteo Salvini attend a media event for centre-right leaders ahead of the March 4 general elections, in Rome on Thursday. Far-right parties such as the League have pushed immigration to the forefront of the election debate. (Andrew Medichini/Associated Press)

For Esuk Munlongandusu, the defining moment in the Italian election campaign – and his almost 30 years in Italy — was the shooting of six African migrants in the small town of Macerata in early February.

Luca Traini, a fascist-sympathizing gunman, went on a drive-by shooting rampage, wounding the migrants, supposedly in revenge for the killing of an 18-year-old Italian woman for which a Nigerian was arrested.

Immediately after, Matteo Salvini, the head of the far-right Lega, or League Party, went on national television blaming both crimes on what he called "Italy's out-of-control immigration policy."

Italy heads to the polls Sunday to elect its 65th government in seven decades. And far-right parties such as the League have pushed immigration to the forefront of the debate.

"At the start the campaign, it looked like the debate would focus on the two most urgent issues facing Italy, namely its relationship with the European Union and employment," says Italian political historian Vera Capperucci. "But those issues got overshadowed by immigration. More specifically, by the extreme positions of the neo-fascist far right."
Esuk Munlongandusu, a 39-year-old Italian citizen who immigrated to Italy from the Democratic Republic of Congo with his family when he was eight, says he feels used by Italy's parties on the right. 'If they didn't have immigrants to talk about, they'd have nothing to say.' (Marika Toma)

Munlongandusu, a 39-year-old Italian citizen who immigrated to Italy from the Democratic Republic of Congo with his family when he was eight, says, "What disgusted me most about the shooting was that the guy [Traini] was treated like a hero." He added, "That's what five years of Salvini blaming immigrants has done."

Munlongandusu is part of a group in Italy that, he says, "are allowed to be witnesses but not protagonists" in their own stories. That includes immigrants, migrants, refugees and even new citizens such as himself, who feel that the country that once welcomed them has now turned on them.   

"On TV they only talk about immigration and foreigners and nothing else. They never talk about health or education," he says. "And immigrants or newcomers to Italy, you never hear from them."

Munlongandusu, who works as a media technician and cameraman, lives in Rome with his Italian partner and their three-month-old Mattias. But, he says, as the hostility towards immigrants, particularly those from sub-Saharan Africa, rises, he wants his son to leave Italy when he can.

"Ten years ago, it was still possible to find a good job as a black person in Italy," he says. "Today it's out of the question. If I lost my job, I'd never find another one. We're the enemies now, the people who steal jobs from Italians."

He says three of his five siblings have left Italy for France, the latest, his brother, a mechanical engineer, after he was laid off. "His former colleagues actually said to his face, 'You're taking a job from an Italian.'"
Migrants rescued in the Mediterranean Sea arrive in the port of Catania in November 2017, to be taken to Italy's overcrowded reception centres. (Megan Williams/CBC)

The accusation that immigrants are stealing jobs in Italy has been an often repeated claim of the League Party, with its "Italians First" slogan.

The League and the equally far-right Brothers of Italy Party are key members of Silvio Berlusconi's new right-wing coalition, which polls suggest will outdo the left but fall just short of the 40 per cent of votes required to form a government.

The League went from four per cent support in the last election to 13 per cent in the latest polls. It did so, say observers, by shifting its scorn from southern Italians, who Salvini once smeared as "lazy, dirty do-nothings," to immigrants.

However, economists such as Tito Boeri, head of the Italian Institute of Social Security, say it's patently false that Italy's 5.5 million immigrants, nine per cent of the country's population, are stealing jobs from Italians or even lowering their wages.

Immigrants take unwanted jobs

"The percentage of Italians without a degree who choose to emigrate for economic reasons halved between 2007 and 2015," he said recently. "It therefore seems unlikely that young people from our country leave due to the competition on the labour market with immigrants."

Most, studies show, are doing jobs Italians do not want to do.

Yet, with the highest youth unemployment rate in Europe at almost one in five and the dramatic rise in the number of migrants rescued in the Mediterranean Sea in the past several years, the narrative has stuck with a growing number of Italians.

And it has made life even more challenging for the 180,000 migrants living in overcrowded, makeshift camps throughout Italy.
Somali-born Italian Yasmin Muhsin, an administrator with the Red Cross in a migrant centre near the northern Italian town of Rovereto, says fear of the 'other' has grown in recent years in the country. (Flavio Galvagni)

 "I live in a small community where I know everyone and so I'm not seen as a foreigner," says Yasmin Muhsin, a Somali-Italian Red Cross administrator at the Migrant Reception Centre of Marco near the town of Rovereto in the northern Trentino region. "But what strikes me at the refugee centre is the fear. They're afraid. They say, 'I'll never be accepted in this country because I can't change my colour.'"

It often happens that if it is only our guys standing waiting for the bus, the driver just keeps going.— Yasmin Muhsin, Red Cross administrator

A requirement of living in the reception centre, she says, is going to school. While some of the migrants attend lessons in containers turned into classrooms, others have to take a public bus to attend classes in town.

"It often happens that if it is only our guys standing waiting for the bus, the driver just keeps going," she says. "It's that kind of in-your-face racism that you can't ignore."

Muhsin says the painfully slow asylum application process in Italy has worsened conditions for the migrants, who often end up living — up to a dozen men in a steel container shelter — for as long as two years while they wait for their application response.

In January migrants held a day-long protest against the long waits and miserable conditions

Some welcoming Italians become intolerant

The concentrations of migrants has also raised intolerance for them among locals who were at first more welcoming.

"There are only so many towns in Italy willing to set up migrant centres, so the ones that do, are overcrowded like ours," she says. "And that's when you see an initially supportive town start to turn on the migrants. Locals feel there are just too many of them."

Muhsin says, though, despite the swell of resentment towards migrants in Italy, her own positive immigration experience makes her believe Italy won't succumb to bigotry.

But Munlongandusu is less optimistic.

"I feel used by Italy's right-wing politicians," he says. "Sure, I can vote, but we're so few that it counts for practically nothing."


Megan Williams

Rome correspondent

Rome correspondent Megan Williams has covered everything from Italian politics and migration to the Vatican and the Venice Biennale for almost two decades. Her award-winning documentaries can be heard on Ideas, The Current and other CBC shows. Megan is a regular guest host of As It Happens and The Current.