In Italy, backlash against migrants grows

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Times Staff Writer

Giancarlo Gentilini likes to call himself the Sheriff of Veneto, this prosperous, fabled region of northern Italy.

The de facto mayor of Treviso is proud of the toy pistols and tin star someone sent him from Abilene, Texas, and of the cowboy hats and bigger-than-life portrait of himself that adorn his regal office. And he is proud of the hard line he takes on immigrants.

“When they see me, they run,” he said, ticking off a list of what he claims as accomplishments: Getting rid of African street vendors and Romanian buskers. Closing the city’s only mosque. Removing park benches to discourage immigrants from loitering. And banning red lanterns outside Chinese restaurants because they spoiled his hometown’s Italian character.


“For the things I’ve said and done, I’ve been called the biggest racist, the biggest fascist, the biggest Nazi of all time,” said Gentilini, 78, now deputy mayor after term limits prevented him from a third stint as mayor. “But now I see everyone following the gospel according to Gentilini.”

It might be easy to dismiss Gentilini as one flamboyant extremist. But he articulates, however indelicately, an anti-immigrant sentiment that is spreading across parts of Italy, a country that for years exported its people as migrants and only recently began to welcome foreign-born workers. Once mostly homogenous, Italy is now struggling to adapt and cope with the change.

The backlash, fed in large part by fears of terrorism and other crimes, is especially intense here in the north, a region that has attracted the lion’s share of immigrants because of abundant work in factories and farms. The region is also home to the right-wing Northern League, a small but influential political party that pushes a xenophobic agenda and was part of the national government until earlier this year.

But the backlash crosses political lines. In cities from Florence to Bologna, authorities want to arrest immigrants who swab car windshields at traffic stops, and they are debating ways to further toughen restrictions on new arrivals. In one nearby city, the center-left government erected a fence around an immigrant enclave, and elsewhere, campaigns have been launched to stop mosques from being built.

Roberto Calderoli, a senator and former government minister from the Veneto region, has proposed a regular “pig day” in which he will parade his pet pig on land where fast-growing Muslim immigrant communities are planning new mosques. The action desecrates the land, in the Muslim view, and the project would probably be nixed.

Calderoli already pulled this stunt in Lido, near Venice, a few years back, achieving his aim of blocking the mosque. (Why he has a pet pig is another story.)


Much of the hostility toward immigrants is directed at Muslims, who make up the largest group of immigrants after Latin Americans. Although no acts of terrorism in Italy have been blamed on Muslim immigrants, authorities say they have detected several networks based in mosques that were training potential terrorists. Scores of people, mostly from Morocco and other countries in northwest Africa, have been arrested.

“The proliferation of mosques and Koranic schools in Italy must be stopped immediately,” said Isabella Bertolini, a lawmaker with the main opposition Forza Italia (Go, Italy) party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. “Our land is contaminated with thousands of these dangerous, spreading cancers which are centers for recruiting fanatics to be martyred in the holy war which Islam is waging against the West.”

As Gentilini’s equal-opportunity agenda shows, however, it isn’t only North Africans who are unwelcome. An especially horrific rape-murder of an Italian couple, allegedly by one Romanian and two Albanian immigrants, this summer and a number of other crimes have led to calls for curtailing immigration.

And the hard-knuckle business practices of Chinese immigrants, which some Italians think undercut their economy, have created resentment and tensions in the Chinatowns of Milan and other cities. Violent demonstrations erupted last spring as Italian police began fining Chinese businessmen for using trolleys, bikes and cars to transport merchandise in the downtown commercial district.

An annual survey of Italy’s five largest cities showed substantial hardening of attitudes toward Muslims and other immigrants. Whereas 61% favored building mosques two years ago, only 28% were so disposed now. A similarly precipitous decline was registered in those favoring giving immigrants the right to vote.

Interior Minister Giuliano Amato said he was alarmed by the trends.

“This fear is typical of closed and aging populations for whom diversity in itself is a threat . . . and it is combined with a cultural predisposition, opinions which have hardened into prejudices,” he said.


In Padua, a classic city of medieval learning and Renaissance art near Treviso, the center-left government yielded to residents’ demands to fence off an immigrant enclave where drug trafficking and gang fights were rampant. The fence quickly became known as a local Berlin Wall, a rusty construction with fluorescent pink graffiti.

The enclave, a collection of dilapidated high-rise buildings that the locals called “the Bronx,” was such an eyesore that authorities finally closed it down this summer. Inhabitants who were legal immigrants were given other housing, said Maria Luisa Ferretti, a senior police official. The others were either arrested and slated for deportation, or faded into the woodwork.

Hoping to soothe the tensions, Padua’s leaders launched a program of “cultural facilitators,” a group of well-established, Italian-fluent immigrants who serve as go-betweens and offer something other than the “traditionally repressive approach” that authorities have had toward immigrants, Ferretti said.

At least 10% of Padua’s 200,000 residents are immigrants; in Treviso, 20% of newborns are the offspring of foreigners.

The “facilitators” don bright yellow vests and roam Padua’s trouble spots. They speak to immigrants and to the Italians who still run businesses in changing neighborhoods.

And sometimes, they get an earful.

Antonio Righetto has owned a coffee bar on Padua’s Via Roma, near the train station, for decades. He greeted “cultural facilitators” Koko Fossung, 35, of Cameroon, and Malika Masrour, 42, of Morocco, with a typical litany of complaints.


Noting the advent of the holy month of Ramadan when observant Muslims keep fasts, Righetto said, “I wish it were Ramadan all the time. Fewer Moroccans around.”

The 60-year-old said the neighborhood had gone downhill since he and his 11 brothers bought many of the storefronts years ago. That the immigrants he decries are also his best customers is a point that seems lost on Righetto.

“I’m not a racist,” he said. “But there are drugs, and then there’s one thing, and then another. . . . We’re ruined.”

Undaunted, Fossung and Masrour pressed ahead on their patrol.

At a nearby beauty supply shop, the Italian proprietor complained that shutting down the Bronx merely dispersed the bad elements throughout the city.

“We feel poisoned,” she said. “It’s indecent. There are too many drug addicts and people walking around with nothing to do. There is no control. You walk into a park and it’s a disaster. You can’t imagine going with your child. Even if the police are around, it’s not enough. The police don’t scare them.”

Fossung and Masrour, who between them have lived 28 years in Italy, both of whose spouses are from their native lands, said they hoped to improve the image of immigrants in Italy by providing new arrivals with better information about where they can go for help until they get settled. They acknowledged that each time a crime is committed by an immigrant, it taints the entire community.


Fossung, who studied in the U.S., said he missed what he remembered as the American attitude toward immigrants, where a person’s value and ability to contribute to society outweighed where he or she came from.

In Italy, he said, the immigrant is still regarded as the person who takes the lowest of low jobs.

“You are constantly having to answer questions about who you are,” he said, “and where you came from and why.”