Why Is Anti-Immigrant Violence Rising in Italy?

The Pigneto neighborhood is one of the most culturally diverse in Rome. City residents consider it bohemian and flock to its ethnic restaurants and quaint stores. But last weekend the trendiness turned to ugliness when a group of around 20 balaclava-clad men, some wearing bandannas with swastikas, demolished shops and beat up non-Italian shopkeepers—mostly Chinese, Indian and Bangladeshi—with lead pipes and baseball bats. CCTV footage captured much of the violence, and residents reported that the gangs chanted "Get out, bastard foreigners."

Xenophobia is hardly new to Europe. But blatant hostility toward immigrants has taken a nastier turn in Italy since Silvio Berlusconi's rightist government took power last month. Amnesty International, in a report released Wednesday, warns that Italy's new "climate of discrimination" is a dangerous trend, encouraged by the country's ruling political parties. "We are facing a wave of racism affecting all immigrants in Italy, including those who are documented," Daniela Carboni of Amnesty International's Italian division told a press conference after the report was released. "The erosion of everyone's rights threatens to turn Italy into a dangerous country, currently for Roma [sometimes called gypsies] and Romanians and in the future potentially for all of us."

The first violent incident took place on May 1 in the northern city of Verona, when 29-year-old Nicola Tommasoli (a Jew of Romanian descent) was beaten into a coma. Tommasoli eventually died of his injuries, and five members of a neo-Nazi gang called the Veneto Skinhead Front were arrested in connection with the assault. And while no one is suggesting any official sanctioning of the beating, Flavio Tosi, the mayor of Verona, is a member of the extreme right Northern League, which repeatedly and publicly calls for violence against immigrants and socialists. (Tosi has since criticized the attack, saying that Verona "is not a city of neofascists and it does not deserve this shameful label.") Nor are these hate crimes confined to the right. A week later in Turin, during a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel, a group of left-wing activists burned the Israeli flag and attacked some Jewish members of the celebrating crowd.

In other incidents this month, neo-Nazi gangs vandalized Roma camps in Milan, and in Naples two Roma camps were torched, allegedly by the local organized crime syndicate known as the Camorra, after a young Roma woman allegedly tried to kidnap an Italian child. Amnesty International is calling for Italy to investigate the Naples incident, referring to testimony and photos that might prove that police officials did nothing to stop it. Television footage shows some members of the group that burned the Neapolitan camps bragging about "ethnic cleansing." Laura Boldrini, a regional spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), compared images of the scene to the forced migration of gypsies out of the Balkans, declaring, "We never thought we'd see such images in Italy."

Other groups and public figures are equally scandalized. Walter Veltroni, the former Rome mayor who also tried to rid the capital of Roma and who was defeated by Berlusconi in the April elections, worries that the political leaders are inadvertently endorsing the recent outbreaks with new anti-immigration legislation. "There are many of these gangs," Veltroni says. "And they are all the more dangerous in a cultural and political climate which emphasizes intolerance and hatred." The American Anti-Defamation League, in an official letter to the Italian interior ministry, urged the Italian government to "publicly condemn xenophobia against Roma and anti-Roma rhetoric. Failure to speak out in this way could send the terribly wrong message to the entire community that perpetrators of xenophobic violence can act with impunity in Italy."

Many ordinary Italians, however, don't seem to share the outrage. A recent poll shows that nearly 70 percent of Italians want Roma and other "undesirable" immigrants expelled. Since coming to power, Berlusconi's government has made illegal immigration a priority. His interior minister, Roberto Maroni of the Northern League, has drawn up a security package that makes illegal entry into the country—currently home to an estimated 670,000 illegal immigrants—a crime punishable by up to 18 months' detention. But the package also stipulates that even those who can legally live in the European Union will be subject to scrutiny and, specifically, will face speedy deportation if they cannot show they have a job or adequate income. So far, Italian police have expelled nearly 500 legal and illegal immigrants who were either suspected of crimes or whose paperwork or job status was not in order.

In a further sign of Italy's growing jingoism, Berlusconi's popularity rating topped 50 percent after his anti-immigration security package was revealed—up from a rating of 33 percent just four months ago. "Frankly, I have never seen a prime minister's approval rating rise like this," Nicola Piepoli, a leading pollster who conducted the survey, told reporters when he released its results on Tuesday. Maroni, who drafted the legislation, topped 60 percent. And Rome's new mayor, Gianni Alemanno, a member of the postfascist National Alliance Party, is also winning praise for sweeping up the gypsies in Rome. He won the election on a promise to expel 20,000 immigrants, legal and illegal, from the city. So far he has worked to destroy several Roma camps, and his security forces have expelled several hundred illegal, undocumented immigrants.

After the violent attacks in Pigneto, Alemanno was quick to meet with the victims and offer public funds to compensate damages. However, his approach may yet prove to be too extreme for many. When he beat center-right candidate Francesco Rutelli, many of the new mayor's supporters drew disapproving comment from centrist Italians by giving Alemanno the one-armed fascist salute to celebrate. Alemanno has also proposed to name a street in Rome after Giorgio Almirante, a fascist leader and supporter of Benito Mussolini—a move that has angered the local Jewish community. Riccardo Pacifici, a prominent Jewish leader in Rome, says the Jewish community will protest any such street name. "Almirante was an accomplice of a tyrannical regime that led to the persecution and extermination of Jews," Pacifici says. "My opinion, as well as that of our community, is one of total condemnation."

Meanwhile Interior Minister Maroni claims the acts of violence are random and unrelated to the new immigration efforts. "Italy is not a racist country," he says. If the attacks continue, that point could become increasingly hard to prove.