Immigrant unrest in Italy


The United States has struggled with immigration and race since its founding, so it is easy to forget that these are relatively new issues for European states that were largely homogenous for centuries. We were reminded of this fact, however, when hundreds of African laborers rioted in southern Italy’s Calabria region for three days last week after Italian youths fired an air rifle at a group of foreign farmworkers.

Italy exported its own citizens for years and only began to admit large numbers of guest workers in the 1980s and ‘90s. Since then, the foreign-born population has grown to at least 6.5%, and, like many of its neighbors in Europe, the Catholic country has been struggling to cope with xenophobia, cultural and religious pluralism, and the contentious politics of immigration.

The unrest in Calabria was not the first racial violence in the country, but it was the worst, with migrants burning cars and storefronts throughout the town of Rosarno and bands of Italians hunting down laborers to exact retribution; more than 50 people were injured in the skirmishes. The government moved in with bulldozers to raze many of the immigrants’ housing encampments and transferred about 1,000 workers to other cities. Most of the legal and illegal immigrants in the south pick citrus and vegetables, earning less than $30 a day. A portion of that reportedly goes to pay mafia protection rackets, and some political observers believe that the riots were provoked by mafia enforcers seeking to drive out the workers in a bad economy. Regardless, the initial attacks tapped into a well of anger and frustration on the part of immigrants who feel they are exploited.


Italians have yet to figure out how to assimilate foreigners who not only work their fields but take care of their children and fill low-paying, menial jobs. The immigrants also sell knockoff Italian goods in illegal street markets and, as the economy has worsened, are blamed for many of the country’s ills. Over the years, reactions have included campaigns against the building of mosques, against street-corner windshield cleaners and against lanterns outside Chinese restaurants. Immigrants earn lower unemployment benefits than Italians do, and children born to immigrants in Italy cannot become citizens until they reach the age of 18.

Unfortunately, the country lacks political leadership on these issues. The Interior Minister, from Italy’s far-right Northern League party, simply blamed the rioting on years of tolerating illegal immigration. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, returning to work after four weeks recovering from an attack, has made no public comment about the disturbing racial violence. Perhaps that is because the riots highlighted the government’s embarrassing lack of control over the mafia-dominated south.