Guess who’s coming to dinner: Fixing Italy’s migrant crisis
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In the run-up to Italy’s March 4 general election, high-profile racist attacks have shaken the Marche region, in Italy’s moderate heartland. But while politicians hurl empty slogans at the migrant “crisis”, residents are doing something about it.
in Fermo, Italy
On a damp and chilly Sunday evening, a few dozen people have gathered for a screening on the piazza del Popolo, Fermo’s exquisite central square. The short film, about a Syrian refugee’s harrowing ordeal, is shown at the aptly named Artasylum bar, followed by a discussion with a Gambian asylum seeker. It’s not a bad turnout considering the wretched weather, but the organisers wish they had drawn more people, particularly among the youth of Fermo, a hilltop town of 37,000, tucked in between the Adriatic coast and the Apennine mountains.
The organisers go by the name of Noisette, after the French word for caffè macchiato. All but one of them are girls, aged between 17 and 21. The collective was founded in the wake of the killing of a Nigerian asylum seeker in Fermo in July 2016. Their logo – two hands emerging united from a cup of milk coffee – illustrates their endeavour to build bridges between communities and heal the wounds caused by Emmanuel Namdi’s tragic death in a scuffle with a local hooligan.
Noisette's initiatives are a source of hope for Peppino Buondonno, a 55-year-old local high school teacher. Buondonno collaborates with a local refugee protection scheme to bring asylum seekers to his classes, where they can exchange with pupils and take part in art projects. Schools have a "crucial role to play in preparing youths to an open and welcoming society, in which diversity is seen as an asset," he says, noting that many schools in the area are already multiethnic.
Others in Fermo have expressed resentment, levelling sexist and racist remarks at members of Noisette. "We've been called communists and troublemakers, but we don't do politics, we simply try to inform people and trigger debate," says Irene, at 21 the oldest in the group. "Some say we project a negative image of Fermo," adds Sara, 19. "But it's only through encounters that we can bring about change."
‘More lucrative than drugs’
Contact is often hard to bring about in a context where the locals feel immigration is a phenomenon they are subjected to, rather than one they can engage with. Stefano Castagna, a member of the Catholic charity Caritas, says there is a risk Italian families feel dispossessed and seek to avoid immigrant communities. He points to the case of a primary school on the outskirts of Fermo where one class has only foreign students. "There’s a risk the area will become a ghetto as Italian families send their kids elsewhere," he says.
Caritas is part of the extensive network of Italian charities and associations that act as a safety net for society's most vulnerable. Castagna says part of his job is to dispel the notion that charities like his favour foreigners over the locals. The fact that 90% of social housing goes to immigrant families, for example, fuels the perception that the system is biased in their favour, "when in fact allocation is based on objective criteria, such as income and the number of children, on which immigrant families tend to score higher."
Another factor that breeds resentment is the competition from cheap migrant labour in agriculture and the all-important footwear sector, the region’s most important industry. “These sectors have been hit hard by the crisis and migrants are blamed for unemployment,” says Castagna.
Perhaps the most damaging phenomenon is the misuse of public funds by unscrupulous landlords, including hotel owners who have converted their premises into shelters for asylum seekers but offer substandard services, pocketing the money. Inevitably, criminal organisations have seized on the opportunity, with one mob leader infamously declaring that “migrants have become more lucrative than drugs”.
A permit, but no work
Caritas runs the Seminario, the largest structure housing asylum seekers in Fermo. It is currently home to just over 100 people, including Pervez*, a young Pakistani who is now in his third attempt at settling down in a European country. At 23, Pervez is already a veteran of Europe's asylum system. We met two years ago on the Greek island of Lesbos, where he was holed up in one of the "hotspots" set up by the EU to fast-track applications and send failed candidates back to Turkey. Six months later Pervez showed up in Paris, having slipped out of Lesbos in the boot of a car and boarded a flight using fake ID. When France also turned down his application he decided to try his luck in Italy, crossing the Alps in the opposite direction to the northward flow of migrants.
Under the so-called Dublin Regulation, Pervez would normally be barred from applying for asylum in a second EU country, let alone a third one. But Italian authorities decided to give him a chance. When he asked a lawyer about the decision, she said he had been "lucky". Within two months, Pervez had a six-month renewable permit to remain on Italian territory, pending examination of his application. He is hoping to get "Humanitarian Protection" from Italy, a status that falls short of asylum but gives access to a two-year renewable residency permit.
Pervez says conditions at the Seminario are a lot better than what he experienced in Greece. But he has little interaction with the locals. And while in theory he is allowed to work, there are no jobs up for grabs. He jokes: "In France I had no permit but plenty of work; here I have a permit, but no work."
Entering the famiglia
Fostering migrants' social and economic integration is the aim of the SPRAR system, which stands for Protection System for Asylum Seekers and Refugees. Unlike the larger emergency shelters that sometimes host several hundred people, the SPRAR scheme houses small groups of asylum seekers in apartments. Sometimes individuals find a home in Italian households, like Soulemane Cissé, a 21-year-old Malian who arrived in 2015 and now enjoys humanitarian protection. Cissé was selected among 50 candidates for civil service, having scored better than many locals. He has been living with an Italian host family in the centre of Fermo for the past four months.
"We live together, we do everything together; that way I learn to be a part of the community," he says in between two training sessions at the Caritas headquarters, part of his civil service. Among other things, the training has helped him perfect the local language, befriend Italians, and master that all-important skill: making pizza.
Back in Porto San Giorgio, Alessandro Fulimeni, one of the coordinators of the SPRAR scheme, says special practitioners dubbed "ethnopsychologists" have been drafted in to look after people like Cissé, "who have been through violence and untold suffering, the women in particular."
Fulimeni says expanding the SPRAR system, which currently takes in only 20% of asylum seekers in Italy, is key to achieving a successful integration. It will also help save taxpayers' money, he adds, since the scheme is closely monitored and "every expense has to be accounted for".
In Porto San Giorgio, a pleasant seaside town lined with sandy beaches, Fulimeni and his associates have experimented with a programme dubbed "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner", after the 1967 movie about an interracial couple and the initially frosty reception it receives from sceptical parents. Over the past year, the scheme has seen dozens of San Giorgesi open their homes to asylum seekers for a meal and a chat, inspiring neighbouring towns to follow suit.
"If there is no exchange, integration cannot work," says Fulimeni. "But if we can reach out to Italian families, refugees will find a gateway to acceptance."
* Name has been changed to protect person's identity