The trendy Rome neighborhood of Pigneto was invaded last month by swastika-wearing thugs who beat Chinese, Indian and Bangladeshi shopkeepers and chanted "Get out, bastard foreigners." Coming after violent attacks on Romas in Milan and Naples, the attacks were condemned by authorities but also, it seems, inspired by them. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi came to power promising to get tough on immigrants, and rules in coalition with the Northern League, which has called publicly for violence against immigrants. Rome's new mayor, Gianni Alemanno, won on a plan to expel 20,000 immigrants and so far has expelled several hundred.
Italy is a frontline state that receives more legal and illegal immigrants than any other in Europe, but now it's in the spotlight for xenophobia. Amnesty International last week warned that a "climate of discrimination" encouraged by top politicians "threatens to turn Italy into a dangerous country." Laura Boldrini, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, compared the violence in Naples, where TV cameras caught attackers bragging about "ethnic cleansing," to the Balkan wars. "We never thought we'd see such images in Italy," said Boldrini. The U.S. Anti-Defamation League warned that official failure to condemn the attacks would send a signal that "xenophobic violence can act with impunity in Italy." Spain, which receives the second most immigrants in Europe after Italy, distanced itself from acts of racism in Italy.
But is this an Italian problem? The violence is exclusively Italian right now. The political environment is not. The European Union's human-rights office condemned the racism of Italy's new laws, which make illegal entry a crime punishable by up to 18 months' detention, and subject legal immigrants to deportation if they cannot prove they have a job or adequate income. But Britain, Switzerland, France and Germany already have similar laws in place. The deportation raids launched by the Berlusconi government are common practice in France and Germany. France expelled 24,000 immigrants in 2007 (up from 10,000 in 2002), and vows to focus on immigration when it holds the rotating EU presidency later this year. Its leaked plans warn that "Europe does not have the means to welcome with dignity all those who see an El Dorado in it." And the lesson of Italy is that cracking down is popular at home. Berlusconi's popularity rating shot up 17 points to 50 percent after his anti-immigrant plans were revealed. The world may condemn Italy, but Europe is likely to follow.