More than a thousand African immigrant workers were put aboard buses and trains in the southern Italian region of Calabria over the weekend and shipped out to detention centers, following an outbreak of violence over the weekend in the town of Rosarno. Three days of rioting that began Jan. 7 when a group of immigrants was attacked while returning from the farms where they worked. The clashes resulted in widespread property damage as well as injuries to more than 50 immigrants and police officers. On Jan. 10, authorities began bulldozing makeshift immigrant encampments outside Rosarno. The evacuated immigrants were dispersed to centers around Italy and face deportation if they are found to lack residence permits.
Some immigrants told the Italian news media that Calabrians had shot at them and beaten them with sticks during the disturbances, and a front-page editorial in La Repubblica on Sunday Jan. 10 compared the situation to Ku Klux Klan violence in the US in the 1960s.
Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni praised the police response in returning order to the area. But Flavio Di Giacomo of the International Organization for Migration in Italy said that the events brought the issue of immigrants rights into the forefront. “This event pulled the lid off something that we who work in the sector know well but no one talks about: That many Italian economic realities are based on the exploitation of low-cost foreign labor, living in subhuman conditions, without human rights,” he said, adding that the workers live in “semi-slavery.”
Pope Benedict XVI departed from his prepared remarks in his Angelus message on Sunday to denounce the violence in Calabria. “An immigrant is a human being, different in origin, culture and tradition, but he is a person to respect, with rights and duties,” the pontiff said, while criticizing the “exploitation” of immigrants.
But Interior Minister Maroni sparked controversy when he called the situation in Rosarno “the fruit of the wrong kind of tolerance” in a Jan. 11 interview. This was actually a softening of comment the day before, when he was quoted as saying the riots were the fruit of “too much tolerance.” A member of the anti-immigrant Northern League, Maroni also defended a proposal introduced by his party last week to cap the number of immigrant students in public school classes at 30%. “Sometimes they speak different languages, and there’s no common balance in the classroom,” he said.
Maroni also said the notion that the violence was sparked by Calabria’s reigning crime machine, the ‘Ndrangheta, is “one possible hypothesis” that the authorities are examining. Local mafias have been implicated in organized attacks on immigrants and Roma elsewhere in southern Italy in recent months.
There are 4 million legal immigrants in Italy, out of a population of 60 million, and even more undocumented immigrants, by official estimates. About 36,000 undocumented immigrants are held to have arrived by boat in 2008. In July, Italy’s Senate passed a law making “illegal immigration” a crime, after the lower house Chamber of Deputies approved the bill in May. The law has been opposed by both the Catholic Church and Human Rights Watch. In November 2008, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention expressed concern about Italy’s treatment of migrants and asylum seekers. (Jurist, Jan. 11; NYT, Jan. 10)
The violence comes on the heels of a new effort to crack down on the ‘Ndrangheta. Last week, Maroni announced that a military escort will be granted to magistrates involved in prosecutions of the criminal network following a Jan. 3 bomb attack in Reggio Calabria, the regional capital, apparently targeting local prosecutor Salvatore di Landro. Maroni made the announcement at a special anti-crime summit held in the city, which he proposed as the seat of a new special agency charged with overseeing the campaign. In 2009 the Reggio Calabria authorities arrested 49 accused ‘Ndrangheta members and confiscated assets with a value of over €800 million ($1,200 million). (FT, Jan. 8)