Thousands of Italians have marched through Rome in support of the rights of refugees after clashes between migrants and police exposed rising hostility towards recent arrivals in the country.
Italy is bearing the brunt of the European migration crisis, having seen almost 100,000 people arrive between January and June. Authorities are struggling to cope and efforts to promote integration have become strained.
The prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, is due to meet the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and counterparts from Spain and Germany, as well as leaders from Chad, Niger and Libya, on Monday for talks aimed at cutting illegal migration from Africa to Europe.
The ongoing influx is deeply dividing Italy’s ruling centre-left Democratic party, while rightwing parties have seized on the issue as Italy prepares for a general election expected to be held before May 2018.
In scenes that were widely condemned last week, police armed with batons fired water cannon at a group of around 100 refugees, mostly from Eritrea, who for several days had been camped out in a square in protest against their forced eviction from a nearby office building where they had been squatting.
Some refugees hurled bottles, rocks and gas canisters as officers tried to clear the camp from the square near Rome’s central Termini station.
“Unfortunately, these things happen ahead of elections,” Cécile Kyenge, an MEP and Italy’s former integration minister, told the Guardian. “In my opinion, good migrant reception needs to be a priority [in the campaign] – if reception and integration are done well, it would prevent conflicts like the one in Rome and benefit everyone. There are many examples of good integration in Italy, mostly in small towns, but there are also many examples of bad practice.”
The refugees, many of whom had been granted asylum and who have jobs in Rome and children enrolled in schools there, were among a community of 800 who had been squatting in the six-storey building for five years.
Authorities said they were evicted after refusing to accept alternative accommodation, and justified clearing the camp by pointing to the risks posed by the gas canisters the squatters had been using for stoves, in an area surrounded by residential buildings.
Human rights advocates and the UN refugee agency protested that the eviction had been conducted without warning. Many asylum seekers sleep on the streets of Rome for lack of housing.
On Saturday, thousands of asylum seekers, other migrants and supporters marched through the Italian capital carrying banners saying “refugees not terrorists”, calling for evictions to be halted and for refugees to be properly housed.
As images of last week’s clashes spread across the world, Rome’s city council, which is led by the populist Five Star Movement, relented on Friday and allowed a group of 40 elderly, sick and young refugees to return to the building for six months after brokering a deal with SEA, the company that owns the block.
The interior ministry is now reportedly drafting new guidelines stipulating that any future evictions must include relocation proposals for the most vulnerable. But the incident has highlighted the fact that 200,000 people are currently housed in state-run shelters as they await asylum applications.
Disillusioned by their government’s inability to manage the situation, some Italians are also beginning to revolt. “If you look at the comments on news sites or on Facebook in response to what happened in Rome, you see that people are very passionate about migration and were mostly in favour of the police,” said Giovanni Orsina, a professor of political science at Rome’s Luiss University.
Though the numbers of people arriving in Italy by sea fell in July – stymied by a crackdown on NGO search and rescue ships operating off the coast of Libya in the Mediterranean – around 140,000 migrants are projected to reach the country by the end of the year.
In what was seen as a final political litmus test ahead of next year’s general elections, centre-right parties scored victories in local elections in June. The centre-right triumphed in mayoral votes in 15 of the largest cities, including Verona, Monza, Piacenza and the border town of Como, where migrants prevented from entering Switzerland have been sleeping rough in parks and outside the train station.
Last week in the Tuscan town of Pistoia, which in June elected its first rightwing mayor since the second world war, a priest sparked controversy merely by taking a group of migrants to a local swimming pool. Members of the far-right Forza Nuova party said on Friday that they would “control” this week’s Sunday mass in retaliation.
The biggest surprise of the June elections was in Lampedusa, the Sicilian island that has been at the centre of the migration crisis. The Unesco peace prize-winning former mayor Giusi Nicolini resoundingly lost to Salvatore Martello, a hotel owner who ran independently from Italy’s main parties and who said he “cannot stand seeing migrants swarming everywhere”.
Daniela DeBono, a research fellow and senior lecturer at the European University Institute and Malmö University, said Italians were mostly frustrated at “the outcome of the gross mismanagement of the secondary reception system”.
“Asylum processes can take up to three years, integration programmes are poor and then, of course, migrants are frustrated and are not allowed to be autonomous …that is quite rightly bothering Italians, especially bearing in mind the high rates of unemployment and precariousness at work,” she said.
Orsina said: “People can’t stand this situation any longer, they don’t perceive it as something that is being well-governed. It’s beyond racism and fear – Italians might even allow half a million more migrants in, but they want to be able to decide rather than have it imposed on them.”
Read more at theguardian.com