Italy: racism and risk

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A 50-year-old man with links to the extreme right opens fire on Senegalese street-vendors in Florence, killing two and seriously wounding three others. He then kills himself. An angry mob attacks a Roma camp in Turin after a teenaged girl falsely claims she had been raped by two Roma men.

These events, two days apart in mid-December 2011, serve as a stark reminder of increasing intolerance and racism in today’s Italy. In recent years, immigrants, Italians of foreign origin, and Roma have been assaulted, stabbed, shot at, and murdered.

These attacks are not isolated incidents but part of a wider pattern of racist violence. Mob violence against Roma in Naples in May 2008 and attacks on African migrant workers in Rosarno, a small town in the southern region of Calabria, in January 2010 made international headlines.

In my own research on the subject earlier in 2011, I spoke with a number of people who had been affected by such violence. The father of Abdoul Guiebre, a young Italian of Burkina Faso origin, was one; Abdoul was beaten to death on a Milan street in September 2008 by the father and son owners of a bar after a petty theft. Marco Beyene, an Italian of Eritrean origin, told me how he was beaten by two men in Naples in March 2009 to shouts of “negro di merda”. Mohamed and Mahbub Miah, two brothers from Bangladesh, told me about an attack on their bar in Rome by a group of fifteen to twenty people in March 2010, which injured four people and damaging the property.

In many respects this is a local manifestation of a larger problem, for racist violence is growing across Europe. But Italy’s response has been notably weak (see Everyday Intolerance: Racist and Xenophobic Violence in Italy, Human Rights Watch, March 2011).

True, the mayors of Florence and Turin have rightly condemned the recent violence, and Italy’s president, Giorgio Napolitano, has called on public authorities and civil society to combat “all forms of intolerance.” Yet in general Italian officials have played down racism as a serious issue. At the same time, anti-immigrant and anti-Roma rhetoric has gradually become a staple of political discourse and media reporting, in turn nurturing a wider climate of intolerance.

This has been reflected in the political arena too. In 2008, the government then headed by prime minister Silvio Berlusconi (in coalition with the stridently anti-immigrant Northern League) adopted “emergency” decrees to facilitate forceful measures against undocumented migrants and Roma; in 2009 it passed legislation to criminalise entry and settlement in Italy without documents, and tried to impose harsher penalties for crimes committed by undocumented migrants.

The cost of prejudice

This disciplinarian approach, combined with a reluctance at official levels to acknowledge that racism is a growing problem, has damaging consequences. Italy’s police, prosecutors and judges lack the specialised training that would help them identify, investigate, and prosecute hate crimes. Italian criminal law does make provision for longer prison sentences where crimes are aggravated by a racist motivation, but the courts often rely on a narrow definition that limits its use to crimes where racism is the sole motive for an attack.

Moreover, the failure to identify hate crimes as such, and under-reporting (especially by undocumented migrants, who fear the police), mean that official statistics are low. This gives Italian officials a pretext to claim that racially aggravated violence is rare. The ensuing vicious circle effectively grants impunity for racist crimes.

There has been progress in 2011, especially efforts – supported by the national office against racial discrimination – to combat intolerance and improve the recording of hate crimes. But much more is needed: better training for police, prosecutors and judges; comprehensive data collection; targeted prosecutions; and a clear recognition of the problem across government, and in society.

Abdoul Guiebre’s murderers were in the event tried and convicted, but not of a hate crime. His father is convinced that racism was the source. “If my son had had a different colour of skin, they wouldn’t have acted like that. They killed him because he was black. My son is dead, but his mother, his brother and his sisters and I die every day.” Violence inspired by racism or xenophobia should be called by its name: to secure justice, to punish those responsible and to prevent further suffering.

By Judith Sunderland (open democracy)

Judith Sunderland is senior researcher on western Europe at Human Rights Watch, based in Milan. She is the author of the HRW report, Everyday Intolerance: Racist and Xenophobic Violence in Italy (March 2011)

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