Thursday, January 25, 2018

Italy's Election Issue

The plight of the hundreds of thousands of migrants struggling to build a life in Italy is rarely discussed by most political parties. Keen to harness a growing backlash against more than 600,000 migrants who have landed on Italian shores in the past four years, the parties are instead promising tough measures such as mass deportations or halting immigration altogether. With poor Italians also struggling to find housing and jobs in an anaemic economy, offering support to migrants is not considered a vote winner. The number of migrants arriving in Italy by sea fell by a third last year to 119,000, but this has failed to quell the fears of ordinary Italians.

In Turin more than 1,000 impoverished African migrants huddle in unheated rooms built to house 300 competitors at the 2006 Winter Olympics. The residents of one of Europe's largest squats, some sleeping in stairwells and storage closets, hail from 28 African countries. Many are jobless or earn very little with sporadic work. Years after first landing in Italy, some cannot afford food, let alone rent.

"This place is the epitome of Italy's failure to integrate," said Nicolo' Vasile, a 31-year-old engineer from Sicily who spends an average of 40 hours a week helping residents, including 40 families and 50 children, with maintenance, paperwork and other tasks. "There is no institutional path to integration. It simply doesn't exist, unlike elsewhere in Europe," said Vasile, one of 20 local volunteers, from students to pensioners to professors, who help those stuck in the Turin complex. Trapped in limbo with their dreams of a better future fading, some residents are depressed and mentally fragile. "They just lose it after a while," volunteer Vasile says. One migrant attempted suicide by leaping from a window this month.

In May 2013, only 4 percent of Italians saw immigration as one of the two most important issues affecting their country. By May of last year the figure was 36 percent, according to the European Commission's Eurobarometer survey. Thirty percent of the electorate would vote for a party that pledges to put "Italians first", while 25 percent would back a bloc promising to "stop immigrants", according to an SWG poll published last week.

The opposition centre-right bloc is taking the hardest line against migrants. The coalition, which includes Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia (Go Italy!) and the anti-immigrant Northern League, is leading in the opinion polls though no single bloc appears yet to have enough votes to govern alone.

Former prime minister Berlusconi says irregular migrants are driving up crime and should be deported, even though official data shows crime rates fell last year. 

The far-right Northern League has promised mass deportations. "There are half a million irregular migrants in Italy. All of them need to be sent home," League leader Matteo Salvini told la Repubblica newspaper on Tuesday.

The 5-Star Movement, which is polling as the single biggest party at just under 30 percent, says Italians must come first and that it will deport irregular migrants. 

One of the reasons offering aid to immigrants is unpopular is that some Italians face similar problems with housing and jobs, and likewise receive little or no help from the government.

Samuel Pieta from Cameroon when asked how he survives, he holds up a box of half-smoked cigarettes he has collected on his daily rounds. "This is how I survive. I get what I need from the garbage. I eat what others throw away," he says, clutching his head between his hands, tears in his eyes.

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