TURIN, Italy — The outcome of next month’s election — one that will be crucial not just for Italy but also for the future of the EU — in no small part hangs on how the Italian public reacts to a violent anti-immigrant backlash and the political earthquake it has unleashed.
The sequence of events is stunning. On January 31, an 18-year-old Italian woman was found dead, her dismembered body hidden in two suitcases near Macerata. A Nigerian pusher with an expired residence permit was quickly arrested (but accused only of concealing the body, not of murder). Three days later, a failed candidate for the right-wing Northern League was arrested after wounding six African immigrants in a two-hour shooting spree in the streets of the small, usually quiet city.
Far from being embarrassed, the League’s boss Matteo Salvini accused the center left of “turning the country into a refugee camp.” Three-time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, back in politics in spite of being banned from office after a conviction for tax fraud, warned of a “social bomb” and pledged to deport 600,000 illegal immigrants. Center-left Interior Minister Marco Minniti — popular for reducing migrant arrivals by more than 30 percent in 2017 thanks to controversial agreements with his Libyan counterparts — warned of a “very high risk that hatred will cause new violence.”
As the main party in the current ruling coalition, the Democrats are struggling to find a balance between condemning instigations to xenophobia, defending their policies on the containment of new arrivals and promising further investments on security.
In Italian society, “fear of the other” is nothing new — it has simmered for decades as the country’s politicians failed to come up with a viable and sustainable solution to the problems associated with irregular migration and poor integration. None of the larger political forces have emerged as credible and consistent players on the issue.
A more liberal nationality law giving children born and schooled in Italy a clear path to equal rights, for example, has been on the formal agenda of center-left governments for more than 20 years. Countless times, politicians have argued that real security can only be achieved through full recognition and inclusion. But in March, yet another legislature will expire without this fundamental promise being kept.
The center-right, meanwhile, has been better at stigmatizing foreigners than coming up with an effective policy of its own. During most of its periods in power, it had low deportation rates, and even granted Italy’s largest amnesty ever toward undocumented migrants in 2002, contradicting parties’ pledges to take a stand on the issue.
The sense of disillusionment and disorientation caused by a decade of economic crisis — statistics may say it’s over, but it’s still tangible in the pockets of most Italians — have created fertile ground for this particular strand of fear toward foreigners. But those same factors have also paved the way for a wave of fear of a violent, radicalized far right.
The drive-by shooting spree in Macerata is the latest in a long line of violent attacks by radicalized Italians. In December 2011, two Senegalese street sellers were killed and a third wounded by a far-right activist near Florence’s central market. In July 2016, a Nigerian refugee was killed by a right-wing football hooligan in Fermo for reacting to a racist insult. Besides these two deadly episodes, there have been countless other smaller scale attacks, including “punitive expeditions” against immigrant shops and reception centers.
Unfortunately, these two strands of fear don’t cancel each other out. They might very well coexist in the same hearts and minds, contributing to a growing disillusionment in politics and entrenching divisions in Italian society. This fear of a xenophobic backlash won’t necessarily have a large enough impact on the polls next month, or neutralize people’s willingness to believe right-wing parties’ pledges to “fix” Italy’s migration problem.
Police officers stand guard as forensics officers carry out investigations in the area following the wounding of several foreign nationals in a drive-by shooting at Macerata, on February 3, 2018 | STR/AFP via Getty Images
But while the overall landscape is worrying, there are some mildly reassuring signs: There have been no mass anti-immigrant protests and while hatred circulating on social media is certainly toxic, the infection appears to be still mainly contained to online forums. Opinion polls are indispensable for gauging the public mood but, especially when dealing with an emotionally loaded phenomenon like migration, they are volatile.
Peaks in public anxiety are connected with the volume of irregular arrivals, but not in a linear way. In fact, the all-time high of Italians’ immigrant fear was reached in November 2007 and was not linked to a spike in arrivals or a geopolitical crisis (compared to peaks in arrivals in 1999 related to the Kosovo war, or in 2011 in the midst of the Arab uprisings). In fact, in 2007, cooperation with Gaddafi’s Libya meant that irregular sea crossings were at an almost historic low. What ignited a collective fear that fall was a single, if ruthless, murder of an Italian woman by a young Romanian migrant. One year later, the level of public anxiety was back to average. And it continued to decrease over the next few years despite the fact that inflows were on the rise again.
Being aware of the volatility of fear does not excuse inaction when it comes to migration policy or xenophobic backlash against it. But neither should Italy let itself get tangled up in a vicious cycle of fear. More than anything, Italian democracy needs to go beyond fears and regain the capacity to generate hope.
Ferruccio Pastore is director of FIERI, the Forum of International and European Research on Immigration.