What Italy’s election results mean for migrants

Hsiao-Hung Pai reports from Sicily, where the far-right victory in yesterday’s general election has led to more fear and uncertainty in migrant and asylum seeker communities.

Migrants hang out in the common room in a shelter in San Giuseppe Jato, Sicily. Photo: Hsiao-Hung Pai

Last night, on the evening of Italy’s 2018 general election, inside Porco Rosso, a cultural association for migrants in Palermo, Sicily, volunteers sat watching as the exit polls came through.

In front of everyone was the spectacle of Berlusconi, his face like a mask of himself, laughing at his success in bringing the far-right onto the centre of Italy’s political stage. Outside a young asylum seeker from Senegal stood talking to his friend. He seemed to take the view that as he couldn’t change whatever was going on around him it was better to keep his head down. Meanwhile several volunteers gathered at the door. One of them, Rabih Ja’afar, from the University of Palermo, shook his head: ‘It’s all going to the dogs.’

Voter turnout in Sicily was 62 per cent, the lowest in the country. Disillusionment with politics meant that many young people, including university students, didn’t come out to vote. ‘In the end, it’s older people’s concerns that determine the election results,’ Ja’afar said. ‘And older voters tend to favour the rightwing and they’re bringing far-right politics back to parliament.’

As the count came to a close, it was the parties with the most anti-migrant, populist message that were the winners. Nationally the Five Star Movement (M5S) was the largest single party with 231 seats (32.22 per cent of the vote) while far-right La Lega (The League, formerly Lega Nord, Northern League) received 123 seats (17.69 per cent). Five Star used the campaign to speak about a minimum monthly income, labour laws, and a hard-line migration pledge that brought itself closer to La Lega. Five Star’s leader Luigi Di Maio wants an end to the ‘sea taxi service’ that rescues migrants from the Mediterranean – rhetoric not dissimilar to that of Matteo Salvini, leader of La Lega. Five Star saw a surge of support in the south. In Sicily, it gained all 28 seats.

This comes as no surprise after a campaign marked by racism and racist violence. On 3 February, in Macerata, a small town in central Italy, six African migrants were injured in a shooting rampage by Luca Traini, a former candidate for La Lega. After the attack, Traini stopped at the town’s war memorial, gave a fascist salute and shouted, ‘Viva I’Italia.’

Life inside Italy’s camps shows young migrants where they stand in the European racial hierarchy

What happened in Macerata was the product of a racial politics that have been brewing since the economic crash a decade ago. There is little distance between Traini’s murderous intent and the mainstream faces on television advocating mass deportations. Like the political breeding ground that led to the murder of British MP Jo Cox, anti-migrant rhetoric is at the core of Italy’s political discourse.

The pattern has been predictable: political parties capturing the public mood by blaming ‘outsiders’ for a stagnant economy. (Italy has comparatively huge levels of public debt and an 11.4 per cent unemployment rate.) However, the ‘outsiders’ are not in blame. In fact, they have kept the country going. Like previous cohorts of migrant workers arriving over decades in Italy, migrant labour from Africa has filled the gap left by youth emigration (due to high youth unemployment of up to 36 per cent) and has been sustaining many industries.

The majority of Italy’s 620,000 migrants are not in the state-funded asylum reception system but working in agriculture and other labour-intensive sectors that have been largely abandoned by local people. These migrant workers – who are seen to not have rights or protections – endure the working conditions of bygone centuries, helping sustain these industries’ competitive advantage. Italy’s politicians never talk implementing labour laws to protect their fellow human beings but instead reward migrants with wholesale demonization.

Matteo Salvini of La Lega, to which Traini belonged, has incited anti-migrant hatred for years. La Lega has promised to introduce mass deportations to Africa as part of a radical reshaping of migration policies. Even in the aftermath of the Macerata terrorist attack, Berlusconi blamed migrants, saying that they were ‘a social time bomb ready to explode’ and promising that, if elected, he would deport 600,000 of them. The fascist party Forza Nuova (New Power) – one of the far-right organizations whose members were involved in the Bologna bombing that killed 85 people in 1980 – ran a demonstration in Macerata, where its leader Roberto Fiore called the fascist shooter a ‘victim’.

Sicily is no exception to this poison. In recent years, hard economic times and media misrepresentation of the ‘refugee crisis’ have changed perceptions. Alberto Biondo, a Palermo-based migrant rights activist, tells me, ‘We’re going back in time...the decision to close all the frontiers and to invest in security has enhanced nationalism that seemed hidden since World War Two but is now returning with greater force.’

In Sicily, migrants experience racism mostly not on the street but from the shelters and camps where they are supposed to be guaranteed protection and dignity. Modou, from Gambia, has been transferred from shelter to shelter for two years. When I met him in 2016, he was placed in an overcrowded camp in Messina. He was later transferred to Agrigento and then to Licata. When he turned 18-years-old, the manager of the camp suddenly informed him that he would be sent to Villa Sikania camp in Siculiana, miles away from his friends who were in the same camp as him. The manager explained that this was because he was no longer a minor and, therefore, the camp was no longer obligated to house him. Modou was devastated and asked to be transferred to a camp for adults in Licata. His friends were all he had in this country. But the manager refused his request, saying, ‘The police will sort you out, not us.’

When Modou arrived at Villa Sikania, he realized that it was a hotel that had been transformed into an emergency camp. There were hundreds of people, mostly from Senegal and Eritrea. ‘There are no rooms to sleep in. Sixty of us sleep in the hall,’ he said anxiously. ‘I’m so confused why they’re doing this to me.’ Friends could not visit Modou because the heavily-policed camp does not allow any visitors. The migrants there had all been waiting for a long time (some more than two years) to be transferred. When asked when his transfer might come, the staff simply fobbed him off. ‘It’ll be next week.’ ‘It’ll be next month.’

Modou told me one evening that he was so stressed that he couldn’t sleep. ‘I feel so discouraged from living this life. It’s too much.’

Life inside shelters and camps demonstrates to young migrants, including children, where they stand in the European racial hierarchy. For Modou and everyone else who has been trapped in these shelters, racism is ingrained in the system that assumes they deserve inferior treatment.

Anti-migrant rhetoric is at the core of Italy’s political discourse

Sicily’s shift to the right became evident in local elections last November. Matteo Renzi’s centrist Democratic Party was kicked out of power and Five Star became the island’s largest single party with nearly 35 per cent of the vote. The centre-right candidate Nello Musumeci, who won with 39 per cent of the vote, became Sicily's new governor. Musumeci had the backing of three of Italy's most prominent parties on the right: Berlusconi's Forza Italia (Go Italy), FDL (Brothers of Italy), and La Lega.

Most migrants are aware that they have been at the centre of a political debate – a debate that has not involved their participation. There is much confusion and fear about what the future holds. The clear signs of changes are on the walls in the streets of Palermo, where posters of anti-fascist marches are everywhere, indicating the growing threat of racist political forces. Anti-racist activists, mainly from small leftwing groupings, are quick to organize.

Palermo’s anti-fascists showed their strength by turning out thousands of protestors on 24 February, the day Roberto Fiore, leader of Forza Nuova was coming to town. Alaji, a young man from Gambia, joined the march. He said his friends had been so frightened of the possible presence of fascists in town that they didn’t come out to the march. Partly as result of fear, few from ethnic minority communities were present, but Alaji decided that he should make a stand.

Last evening, as the vote count came to an end, Modou called me from Siculiana and told me that a Senegalese street seller had been shot dead by a local man in Florence. It upset and frightened him a lot. He anxiously asked me what the election results were like. For him, the ascension to power of La Lega and their ilk means an even more precarious life in this country.

Hsiao-Hung Pai’s new book, ‘Bordered Lives: How Europe Fails Refugees and Migrants’ (New Internationalist), is available to buy.