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A boon for the far right: How migrant ‘crisis’ hijacked Italy’s election

Miguel Medina, AFP | Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right Lega party, is campaigning on an "Italians first" platform.

In the run-up to Italy's March 4 general election, high-profile racist attacks have shaken the tranquil region of the Marche, in Italy’s moderate heartland, pushing the country's poisonous immigration debate to the forefront of a lacklustre campaign.


in Fermo, Italy

The short drive from Porto San Giorgio, on the Adriatic coast, to the hilltop town of Fermo is a chance to soak in some of the finest views in Italy, a hilly patchwork of orchards, vines and grazing fields, tucked in between a stretch of sandy beaches and the Apennine mountains.

Founded in Roman times, Fermo lies at the heart of the Marche region of central Italy, known for its mild-mannered residents and moderate politics. But here too, the country’s toxic immigration debate is casting a sinister shadow over Sunday’s parliamentary election.

A view of Fermo, with the Appenine mountains in the background.
A view of Fermo, with the Appenine mountains in the background. Wikimedia creative commons

“We’re living in a racist state,” says the driver, who owns a bed & breakfast in Fermo’s medieval centre, upon hearing that his guest for the night will be a foreign journalist. He adds: “Racist against Italians.”

Lurching to the right

For much of the past decade, Italy has been grappling with an influx of migrants arriving on its southern shores, fleeing war and poverty in their home countries. While new arrivals decreased last year following a controversial deal with Libya, polls suggest Italians are increasingly uneasy about a phenomenon some politicians and media outlets describe as an "emergency" and an "invasion".

The hot-button issue is a boon for the anti-immigrant Lega party, dominating discussions in the final stretch of a campaign that has been singularly lacking in both civility and policy. Polling institutes say the Lega's right-wing coalition, which includes the 81-year-old three-time prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is poised to win the largest share of seats – and possibly even a majority – in Italy's next parliament.

“I’m sick of seeing immigrants in hotels and Italians who sleep in cars,” the Lega's leader Matteo Salvini told supporters at a recent rally in Milan, accusing Italy's centre-left government of racism against its own people.

A close ally of France's far-right leader Marine Le Pen, Salvini is campaigning on an "Italians first" platform. He is promising to expel 150,000 migrants in his first year of office if his party wins the election. In a grim game of one-upmanship, his awkward ally Berlusconi has pledged to expel 600,000, calling on Italian citizens to "help identify them by pointing them out." Last month, Attilio Fontana, the right’s candidate for governor in Lombardy, Italy’s richest region, said the migrant influx threatened to wipe out “our white race”.

Protesters rally against racism in the city of Macerata, in central Italy, days after a far-right gunman injured several black people in a shooting rampage.
Protesters rally against racism in the city of Macerata, in central Italy, days after a far-right gunman injured several black people in a shooting rampage. Tiziana Fabi, AFP

A lawyer by training, the mayor of Fermo, Paolo Calcinaro, says such statements are just empty promises as there are no legal or practical means to organise mass expulsions.

There is "no legal framework for the mass repatriation of migrants, whose home countries are often less than exemplary when it comes to basic human rights," the mayor explains. "You cannot just put people on boats and leave them at sea." Logistical difficulties also mean that, on average, less than half the migrants who receive orders of expulsion are effectively deported.

Fermo, a town of 37,000, is home to around 250 asylum seekers. It has taken part in several pilot projects, including a voluntary scheme that brings locals and migrants together in cleaning up public spaces. Lauding the "sense of responsibility" of his fellow citizens, Calcinaro says the town is "a virtuous example of hospitality in a difficult context for the country, at a time when other municipalities have raised barricades against migrants."

The mayor says local authorities are on the frontline of a "major and unprecedented challenge" facing Italy. Elected as an independent on a centrist ticket, he admonishes politicians from both sides of the aisle: "On the one hand, you have a right-wing that is surfing on people's fears; and on the other, a left that all too often ignores them."

An ideal scapegoat

An industrious and tranquil region, the Marche traditionally leans towards the most moderate political camp. In the past this meant voting for socially-minded Christian Democrats; nowadays it translates into votes for the centre-left Democratic Party, Italy's ruling party. But the migrant issue threatens to disrupt that pattern.

"Immigration will determine the outcome of the election and the likes of Salvini are playing a very dirty game," says Angelo Ferracuti, a journalist and writer from Fermo. "They've convinced Italians that immigrants are the only problem, and this will hand many votes to the right."

Ferracuti has written extensively about the Marche. He says the roots of today's turmoil are to be found in deep-seated transformations that have corroded the region's social and economic fabric. Factors like "globalisation, consumerism, joblessness and the decline of political affiliations have led to an erosion of social ties, to growing isolation, and to a feeling of insecurity," he says. "For all of these problems, immigrants provide an ideal scapegoat."

Recent high-profile incidents have brought the undercurrent of hostility towards migrants into broad daylight, culminating earlier this month in the drive-by shooting of several black people by a Nazi sympathiser – and Lega member – in the city of Macerata, some 40 kilometres north of Fermo. After the rampage, the 28-year-old gunman made a fascist salute with an Italian flag wrapped around his shoulders, and shouted "Italy for Italians". He later told investigators his attack had been motivated by the gruesome killing of an 18-year-old Italian woman a few days earlier, for which four African men are being investigated.

Macerata gunman Luca Traini, 28, pictured on shortly after his arrest on February 3 with an Italian flag still wrapped around his shoulders.
Macerata gunman Luca Traini, 28, pictured on shortly after his arrest on February 3 with an Italian flag still wrapped around his shoulders. Italian Carabinieri Press Office, AFP

Eighteen months earlier, Fermo was itself the focus of unwanted attention after 36-year-old Emmanuel Namdi, a Nigerian asylum seeker, died of injuries sustained in a scuffle with a local hooligan who had racially abused his wife, calling her an "African monkey". Days earlier, small explosive devices were detonated outside local parish buildings that were hosting migrants.

"If such violence could happen here, in a mild and tranquil region, it means the cracks in our social fabric are deeper than we thought," says Ferracuti.

'Mafia controls swathes of Italy, and we blame migrants'

While the shocking attacks in Fermo and Macerata were fimly condemned by the authorities, both local and national, Ferracuti says they also breed indifference among segments of the local population, a desire to "hush it all up so as not to tarnish the area's reputation". In some cases, they even lead to an "inversion of roles, in which the attacker is perceived as the victim", a symptom of the fear and legitimate exasperation felt by many Italians.

Official figures show a steady decrease in crime in recent years, and yet polls say a growing number of Italians feel unsafe and link crime to immigration. Last year, a report by the European Observatory on Security suggested a possible link between this perception and the blanket coverage of crime-related stories on Italy's main televised news programmes, which dwarves that of most other EU countries.

Peppino Buondonno, a teacher at one of Fermo's high schools, says it takes some cheek for Italians – "who exported the Mafia around the world" – to blame foreigners for lawlessness. "The various mafia control swathes of this country, and yet we blame crime on immigrants, people who flee wars we Westerners started," he sighs. Migrants who fall off the authorities' radar, particularly when their asylum applications have been rejected, are easy prey to drug traffickers and other criminal networks. "But drug peddling existed long before refugees arrived," says Buondonno. "It's the Italian mob that controls it, and they'll use any kind of cheap labour."

Buondonno says the point is not to stem the flow of asylum seekers – which is "neither feasible nor desirable, given the plight of refugees" – but to change the way it is managed and perceived. But in the current political climate, he is not optimistic. "As someone who teaches history to the younger generations, sometimes I see parallels between our age and the Weimar Republic," he says, referring to the interwar German democracy whose demise coincided with the rise of Nazism.

>> Click here to read part two of this report Guess who's coming to dinner: Fixing Italy's migrant crisis

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