Italy: Anti-immigrant violence and riots explode against the background of economic crisis

United class response needed to prevent unleashing of racism

The anger felt by hundreds of African immigrants exploded on Thursday 7 January in Rosarno, a small town in the largely impoverished, agricultural region of Calabria, in Southern Italy. This followed a racist provocation by local young people, who shot with an air gun at a group of immigrant farm workers on the way back from work. This incident was the detonator for riots and protests, with some immigrants clashing for hours with the police and local inhabitants, breaking shop windows, burning and smashing cars with sticks, etc. Subsequently, a brutal witch-hunt followed against the immigrants, undertaken by some local inhabitants, including savage beatings with iron bars, and immigrants being knocked down deliberately by cars. More than 60 people were injured in what were probably the most violent racial clashes which have taken place in Italy for years. A number of immigrant workers fled the city, while more than one thousand of those remaining were put by the police in buses and trains to be evacuated over the weekend to detention centres in Crotone, Bari and Brindisi. The immigrants’ makeshift encampments were subsequently bulldozed.

’Modern Slave Labour’ for the Mafia

The recent events in Rosarno have, first of all, revealed the terrible conditions facing immigrant workers in Southern Italy. In their protest, some of the immigrants carried placards saying, “We are not animals”. Immigrants in this area are living and working in near slave conditions, over-exploited by local bosses and severely controlled by the ‘Ndrangheta’, the Calabrian Mafia, who use them as a very cheap and pliable labour force, without any rights. As was pointed out by a 30-year-old worker from Ghana, interviewed by the Italian newspaper, “Il Manifesto”, “We are treated like beasts. We work so much; at the present time, I harvest mandarins and oranges, and I receive 20 euros for the whole day.” The same newspaper revealed that, according to an investigation in May 2009, these workers“were beaten in the case of any slowing down of the rhythm of harvesting the fruit”.

Clashes in Rosarno

Calabria is home to some 20,000 illegal immigrants, according to the CGIL trade union. Most of them work as seasonal labourers, picking fruit and vegetables. In Rosarno alone, 1,500 were living in abandoned factories, with no running water, sanitation or electricity. They were employed, most of them illegally, to be paid 20-25 euros (sometimes less) for 12 to 14 hours work a day. As was recently reported by the human rights group, Médecins Sans Frontières, “Many of them are affected by respiratory and muscular problems because of their unhealthy living conditions and long working hours.”

Rosarno is only the tip of the iceberg of an immense system of fraud and exploitation in which the Mafia is playing a central role, relying on the subjugation of this very cheap workforce for the maximisation of their profits. This, among other diverse activities, like international drug and arms trafficking, public works fraud and prostitution, represents a very lucrative business for organised crime. Official estimates indicate that the ’Ndrangheta’ made Euro 44 billion (more than $60 billion) profits in 2008 alone.

The economic crisis has only contributed to worsening the immigrants’ situation even further. Because of the decline of the prices of citrus fruits, and the flood of the Italian market by cheap imported fruit from abroad (notably Spanish oranges and Brazilian orange juice), a lot of owners in the area decided that these immigrant workers were not profitable anymore, or that their wages needed to be driven down further. Here is manifested once again the absurdity of the blind market system: since the owners received European Union subsidies for every cultivated hectare, it has become sometimes more profitable to let the fruits rot on the trees, than to pay workers to harvest them.

For the above reasons, the involvement of the local mafia in orchestrating the racist attacks and feeding the explosion of violence in order to “clean up the place” and maintain its control over the area, fearing social agitation, is far from excluded. But whatever the role of the mafia in these events has been, their political and social implications are much wider. They must serve as a warning to the working class, in Italy and internationally, of the dangers that could develop in the present period of historical crisis of world capitalism, if the rising social anger and frustration is not assisted by a positive programme and a conscious collective struggle to change society along socialist lines.

Thousands attend local demonstration

“We are not racists”

Commenting on the Rosarno events, the Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s newspaper, came out denouncing “the racism of the Italian people”, and criticising the fact that “the value of the mixing of different races has still not been understood”. As if the present situation, in one of the poorest regions of Italy hit hard by poverty and mass unemployment – at about 25%, the worst rate in the whole country – was a haven of peace and well-being!

It is true, however, that racist attacks and violence have been on the rise in Italy in the recent period. Nevertheless, this can hardly be explained by the simplistic view that “Italian people are racists”. The worsening social conditions, the lack of jobs, the systematic attacks on living standards, and the gloomy future offered by the capitalist crisis, combined with the lack of a viable alternative on the left, have opened a vacuum. Racist propaganda and projecting blame for the crisis onto immigrants are feeding on this.

Significantly, on Monday 11 January, several thousand people from Rosarno – out of a population of 15,000 – demonstrated in the streets of their town, with some immigrants of African origin at the head of the march, rejecting the accusations of “racism” against them, with some accusing the State of having abandoned them to their problems, and done absolutely nothing about the disastrous conditions in which the immigrants were forced to live. This kind of reaction is an indication that the violent racist attacks committed by some inhabitants are not widely accepted by the local population.

Contrary to what the Vatican’s statement suggests, racism is not a problem of a lack of moral virtue. It is a social problem, rooted in the class-based and divide-and-rule policy of capitalist society. As Malcolm X pointed out, “you cannot have capitalism without racism”. In the absence of a united struggle for decent jobs and living standards, the unprecedented increase of immigrant workers fleeing the misery of the neo-colonial world, in the context of the economic crisis, can only become a factor of growing tensions and competition for jobs between the immigrants and the local inhabitants. According to “Le Monde”, for the year 2009 alone, Italy has registered a 75% increase in immigration arrivals.

The only ones who profit from these divisions are the bosses and the Mafia, using this “war of the poor against the poor” to increase the exploitation of labour and maintain their rule over the economy. The vulnerable and insecure position in which most immigrant workers are forced to live constitutes an integral part of this process. “In reality people who came to Italy illegally make up a big part of its 5 million-strong immigrant population. Many sustain parts of the economy that would otherwise be uncompetitive”, commented ‘The Economist’.

Police clash with immigrant demonstrators

Race riots: the government’s policy has opened up a Pandora’s box

Following the events in Rosarno, Home Affairs Minister, Roberto Maroni, from the anti-immigrant party, the Northern League (coalition partner of the Berlusconi government), said that this violence was a result of “years of excessive tolerance” of illegal workers in Italy. He then added that the government will eventually deport all illegal immigrants who took part in the riots. In fact, many of the immigrants were legally in Italy, some having moved south when they lost their jobs in factories in the north because of the economic crisis.

Over the last two years, the right-wing Italian government has deployed a long series of harshly repressive and racist measures against immigrants, which can hardly be described as “excessive tolerance”. These include the legalisation of ‘civilian patrols’ to control the immigrants, the forcing of public officials to inform on un-documented refugees, the organisation of punitive raids against gypsy camps, the criminalization of those helping ‘illegal’ workers, with the threat of a 3 year prison sentence, or the forced turning back on the open seas of boats with refugees arriving on Italian coasts, thus denying refugees the right to claim asylum.

The Berlusconi government and the Northern League have been at the forefront of consciously fuelling racism against immigrants, exploiting the fears of Italian workers and the lack of a collective response to the social problems from workers organisations. Minister for reform and founder of the Northern League, Umberto Bossi, has been reported on several occasions as nicknaming African migrants ‘Bingo-Bongos”, in reference to a 1982-movie from which the main character was an ape-man. In “Il Sole 24 Ore”, the main newspaper owned by Berlusconi, the term “Negro” is commonly used to describe the African immigrants.

Recently, the local council of the Northern town of Coccaglio launched an immigrant purge under the cynical name of “White Christmas”, consisting an officially-sanctioned drive to identify and expel as many non-Europeans as possible before Christmas. The town’s Northern League Mayor, Franco Claretti, declared “We just want to start cleaning the place up.”

This kind of campaign, combined with an increasing social crisis and casualisation of labour, heavily encouraged by the government and pushed along by the economic downturn, as well as the total impunity with which the Mafia imposes its strong grip on the economic structure of Southern Italy, have contributed to create an explosive cocktail, of which what happened in Rosarno is a direct result. The government is now cynically attempting to exploit this to tighten up further its policy against immigrants, in an increasing campaign to provide a scapegoat for the country’s economic demise and deflect blame away from the capitalists.

On 8 January, all state schools received a document giving some “guidelines for integration of immigrant students”. This includes the introduction of a maximum cap of 30% of immigrant students to be accepted in state schools. Since then, some leaders of the Northern League have added their own statements proposing other very imaginative ideas, like train carriages available for Italian people only, or restriction access to the social security system for “native Italians”.

In reaction to this, the leader of the main opposition, Democratic Party (PD) Pier Luigi Bersani, accused the Northern League of blaming illegal immigration and denounced its racist stand. However, while in power, the centre-left, elected on the promise of reversing the anti-immigration laws adopted during the previous legislature (notably the Bossi-Fini law, which facilitates the expulsion of immigrants from the country) has done absolutely nothing in this respect.

Immigrant camps bulldozed

Only a united struggle of the working class can stop racism and prevent ‘new Rosarnos’

Capitalism is responsible for what happened in Rosarno. The economic crisis is causing rocketing unemployment and spreading misery around the world. Racist and reactionary politicians will inevitably use the immigration issue to divert attention, divide the working class and prevent a common struggle of exploited workers and youth which could threaten the privileges and position of the capitalist ruling elite.

In Vic, a city in the eastern Catalonia region of Spain, the town’s administration has launched a plan to stop allowing immigrants, who make up roughly a quarter of the population of 40,000, to register as residents and to deny them the right to access healthcare and other services.

If the workers’ leaders fail to put forward a political way out and prevent this kind of racist policy being implemented, the ground will be prepared for new racial explosions, such as the events in Rosarno. The collapse of the left in Italy, illustrated by the fall of support for the PRC (‘Party of Communist Re-foundation’) because of its compromising positions and its endorsement of neo-liberal policies, has been one of the main reasons for the increase of the votes for the right parties and the Northern League, the latter having exploited the fears of the workers in order to raise its anti-immigrant agenda.

The fact that immigrants eventually reacted against the local inhabitants in Rosarno could have been avoided if the union leaderships had organised a proper campaign to defend their rights, linking their struggle to the demands of the wider working class. A clear strategy and programme is urgently needed to fight against the real enemy: the capitalist class and the mafia organisations. A common struggle of all workers, whatever their origins or nationalities, is urgently needed; a struggle for jobs, decent housing and better living standards for all, refusing to accept that the capitalist crisis should be paid for by anyone of us. This must include an implacable fight for the withdrawal of all the racist laws implemented by the government, which can only weaken the working class’ resistance and be used to undermine the democratic rights of all.

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January 2010