Italian region shows two sides to the immigration story

Marwen, from Tunisia, told EURACTIV the "problems in the area around the station are a bad representation of the city and of immigrants. Solutions should be found for both Italians and immigrants".

Images of distressed refugees arriving on Italian shores have become increasingly familiar in recent years. EURACTIV reports on the situation on the ground in Italy.

The rise of anti-immigration rhetoric in Italy has further reinforced the perception of migrants as people struggling to integrate and embrace European values. The result, unsurprisingly, was the success of the far-right Northern League, or Lega, in the March 2018 elections, on the back of a strong anti-immigration campaign.

But scratching beyond inflammatory headlines, however, one finds that integration is possible.

Take, for example, the small city of Ferrara in Emilia Romagna, northeast Italy. Once a quiet, provincial place, the city has recently made headlines with stories of violence and drug dealing by immigrants.

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Ferrara reflects the broader changes in Italy, where immigration was one of the main bones of contention of the 2018 electoral campaign. Comments by Lega leader Matteo Salvini went viral along the Italian boot and Lega became the third largest party, capturing more than 17% of the vote in March 2018

Lega is now in a coalition government with the Five Star Movement and Salvini is the new interior minister. He wasted no time in promoting his agenda and sniped at Mario Balotelli, one of Italy’s most high-profile footballers, saying he should not be the captain of the national team because the captain should be “representative”.

In Ferrara, tension is especially high in the area around the main railway station, the so-called “Gad”, where fights among drug dealers have become increasingly common. Investigations linking the recent incidents to the Nigerian mafia have further exacerbated anxieties and fear among the local population.

Populist and xenophobic messages have therefore found fertile ground in the city. Ferrara, ruled by the centre-left since 1946, saw Lega win almost 24% of the vote in the March 2018 elections, compared to just below 3% in 2013.

Immigrant voices to break stereotypes

According to a poll by IPSOS MORI, Italy is the least well-informed country in the world with respect to immigration.” A majority of Italians think that immigrants living in Italy make up 30% of the population (the true figure is 8%), and that Muslims make up as much as 20% (in reality, 4%).

Misconceptions are common when discussing migration in Italy. For example, according to the final report by the Jo Cox Committee of the Italian Parliament in 2016, almost 53% of Italians think that “an increase in the number of immigrants favours the spread of terrorism and criminality” and 65% of Italians (compared to 21% of Germans), believe that “refugees are a burden because they exploit the social benefits and work of the native inhabitants”.

It is easy to forget that most immigrants in Italy arrive legally, play an active role in society and contribute to the economy, social and cultural life of the country. Their stories often go unreported, including in Ferrara, where approximately 13,500 foreigners lived in 2017 (10.3% of the population).

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EURACTIV met with immigrant residents of Ferrara to discuss their experience and better understand the reality of immigration in Italy. All interviewees arrived in Italy on a legal visa as students or for a family reunion and went through an application process that often lasted more than a year.

Marwen, a Tunisian student living in Italy since 2015, explained that to obtain a student visa he first took an intensive language class at the Italian cultural centre in Tunis for a year. He then enrolled at the University of Ferrara where he currently studies communication.

Hamdi, another Tunisian who arrived in 2012 to obtain his degree, said that foreigners on a type D visa additionally have to provide a bank guarantee of €5,000. Italy provides grants to foreign students on this type of visa but the contribution changes over time.

“The first year the grant covered 100% of the studying and lodging fees, but now fewer foreign students have a grant,” Marwen revealed.

Overall, immigrants represent 10.5% of the workforce, contributing a net profit of €2 billion to the national economy.  But discrimination is still common.

“One cannot generalise, you can find open-minded people but also others who aren’t particularly welcoming,” said Alina, a Ukrainian who arrived in Italy in 2013 to work. Integration is easier for young people, especially at school and university. The highest level of distrust is among senior citizens and people in the street.

Alina, an immigrant from Ukraine in Italy. [Irene Marchi]

“Once they know you, people will perceive you as an individual and no longer as the generic Tunisian immigrant,” said Hamdi. He now works for an association helping refugees with bureaucracy and accommodation and volunteers with the Red Cross. He believes integration requires mutual respect and openness between immigrants and Italians.

Although he has not experienced racism or discrimination himself, he explained how some people still think that integration means “drinking beer and eating bacon” [i.e. rejecting the basic postulates of Islam].

Generally, discrimination happens when the person is more visibly “different”. For example, Hamdi’s friends of Tunisian origin, born and raised in Ferrara, never encountered any issue until last year when they started wearing the hijab.

Similarly, Parsa has witnessed discrimination only when with friends of African origin.

Alina, an engineer by training now works as an accountant in a factory because her degree isn’t recognised in Italy. She has been told to “be grateful” to have her current job instead of being a carer for older people, a line of work that often employs women from Central and Eastern Europe.

Many immigrants are also active in civil society.

A year ago, Hamdi launched the Web Radio Giardino, saying “we need more honesty to tell the real story of foreign citizens, for a multi-ethnic city”. The radio is one of several new initiatives in the “Gad” area which aim to create more cultural activities and provide creative outlets to its inhabitants.

It was launched with the support of City Council member Massimo Maisto, in charge of culture and tourism, and Hamdi believes that initiatives of this type, rather than increased police presence, will make the biggest contribution to regenerating the area.

“Drug dealers have now moved to the city centre, the police is only useful in showing that something is ‘being done’ but it doesn’t really have an impact on the root problems,” says Hamdi.

Rather, it makes “all immigrants feel to be perceived as criminals, they are ashamed of the colour of their skin”.

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