Italy's casual racism is out of place in town where migrants are helping economy

Italy is an aging country with towns and villages emptying of their young, and a country where racism is never far below the surface. When it explodes, it is often tolerated.

It's an aging country with towns losing their young — and racism never far below the surface

Sulley Muntari of Pescara Calcio watches during the Serie A match between his team and FC Crotone at Adriatico Stadium in Pescara on May 7. He knows how the game is played in Italy. (Giuseppe Bellini/Getty)

Three snapshots:

  • A black soccer player walks off the field in a Serie A game to protest "monkey" chants and is then penalized for unprofessional behaviour.

  • In the south, tens of thousands of refugees wait, penned in dirty, overcrowded camps. Each month thousands more undertake the dangerous Mediterranean crossing to join them. More than 1,000 have drowned on the way this year alone.

  • The village of Sant'Alessio was small and shrinking. Its answer? Welcome refugees to live and learn. The results have been positive. But Sant'Alessio is the exception.

This is Italy in the spring of 2017.

It is an aging country with towns and villages emptying of their young, and a country where racism is never far below the surface. When it explodes, it is often tolerated.

It is also a country with tens of thousands of potential new citizens sitting on its doorstep. With a few exceptions, however, Italy is very reluctant to try to integrate them.

Sulley Muntari has been around. He's 32 and has played for several top Italian teams as well as teams in Britain. He's also played for Ghana's national team 84 times.

He knows how the game is played in Italy, he knows the corrosive power of fans called "ultras" and their penchant for racist abuse. But in early May he snapped. He had appealed to the referee to do something about the unrelenting chants. The referee did nothing. So Muntari left the game.

Sulley Muntari of Pescara remonstrates with football fans during a Serie A match April 30 in Cagliari, Italy. (Enrico Locci/Getty)

For this, the Italian soccer federation suspended him for a further game. It said the abuse was minor, coming from a minority of just 10 or 15 fans.

Meanwhile, in the mountains of the south, the town council of Sant'Alessio rents out eight apartments which house 35 migrants — an Iraqi Kurdish family, and people from Nigeria, Mali and Senegal.

The town gets up to 45 euros ($70 Cdn) a day for each migrant from the national government to house, feed and help train them. There are vocational classes and legal and medical aid.

The mission began as humanitarian aid, Mayor Stephano Calabro said. "But there are significant economic benefits, too."

The subsidies are helping to keep the town's dying shops and services alive.

Migrants wait to be rescued by the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) vessel Phoenix in May 2017 off the island of Lampedusa. From there, they go to holding areas in southern Italy and Greece that Pope Francis I has called "concentration camps." (Chris McGrath/Getty)

Most migrants aren't so lucky. Over the years, people on the southern island of Lampedusa have worked heroically to rescue and welcome thousands of new arrivals who risked their lives in the sea crossing.

But now at least 170,000 migrants languish in makeshift government camps, waiting for months, even years, while their asylum requests work their way through the slow, tortuous, complicated bureaucratic process.

Conditions are brutal. Pope Francis I at the end of April used the harshest possible language, describing the holding areas in southern Italy and Greece as "concentration camps."

This being Italy, the Mafia appears to have profited. On May 14, police swooped down and arrested 68 people, including a priest, at Isola di Capo Rizzuto in southern Italy, Agence France-Presse reported.

They were accused of theft and extortion at the Cara Santa Anna centre for refugees over 10 years. The centre houses 1,500 refugees at a time.

The Arena clan of the 'Ndrangheta crime syndicate is believed to have siphoned up to one third of the $150 million in public funds allocated to the centre with the connivance of Father Edoardo Scordio, who the prosecutor said received 150,000 euros ($228,000 Cdn) from the clan for "spiritual services."

The Italians grudgingly lodge the migrants but complain that the rest of Europe washes its hands of them. The European Union pledged to take 35,000 refugees from Italian camps, but by the end of 2016 had only taken 1,200.

Nasty and wrong

The presence of so many migrants has only fuelled a populist, anti-foreign backlash. African footballers feel it, but Italy's nearby European neighbours are even bigger targets.

They are Romanians, and in particular Romas from that country. There are 1.4 million Romanians living and working in Italy and up to a 10th of them may be Romas.

"Italy has imported 40 per cent of its criminals from Romania. While Romania is importing from Italy our firms and our capital. What an amazing deal the EU is!"

That was a Facebook post in April by Luigi Di Maio. It's both nasty and wrong, mangled out of a Romanian police estimate in 2009 that up to 40 per cent of those it sought for criminal activity had fled and hid in Italy.

But Luigi Di Maio is an Italian MP for the Five Star movement, a populist anti-Europe agglomeration now leading in the opinion polls. And Di Maio isn't just any MP. He's the likely Five Star candidate for prime minister if his group wins the election next year.

1-game suspension

Just weeks later, in early May, someone threw a Molotov cocktail into a caravan in Rome where members of a Roma family were sleeping. Three sisters died in the explosion.

Back in the world of Italian soccer, Sulley Muntari's one-game suspension for unprofessional behaviour was criticized and mocked across Europe. Shame works. The Italian soccer federation quickly reversed its decision penalizing him.

But no action was taken against the club or the fans who had yelled racist chants against him throughout the game. After all, it's a long and dishonourable tradition. Several other black players have publicly protested over the past 15 years — in vain.

That's not surprising when you consider that the head of the Italian soccer federation, Carlo Tavecchio, campaigned for his job with this quote:

Out of place

"England checks out players when they arrive in the country, to see if they are professional enough to play. With us, however, 'Opti Poba,' who yesterday was eating bananas, today is first choice at Lazio (a major Italian club)."

Casual racism is out of place in Sant'Alessio. The subsidies for the migrants have created 16 new jobs, along with a small gym. The money has kept the supermarket and the bar going. There are regular soccer games between the young migrant men and a team from a nearby drug rehabilitation centre. And no monkey chants.

The experiment has given new life to the village.

"The village was emptying," said Celestina Borrella, 73, who runs the bar. "So if there's a little movement now, that's a good thing."

About the Author

Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.