Rome: In the wake of last week’s shipwreck tragedy in Italy, refugee and immigrant rights advocates are hoping for a change of heart in a country that is struggling to accept a new multi-cultural identity.
After visiting Lampedusa island where over 300 migrants died, Prime Minister Enrico Letta announced a reform of asylum laws and said Italy should abolish the crime of illegal immigration.
“It is now or never for things to change,” Khalid Chaouki, a Moroccan-born lawmaker from the centre-left Democratic Party in the Italian parliament, told AFP in an interview.
Italy’s current laws on immigration “were put in place in a climate of fear by right-wing governments over the past 20 years,” he said.
At the centre of the debate is the “Bossi-Fini Law” which considers all irregular migrants “suspects” liable for steep fines and punishes people who come to their aid, including fishermen who fear having their boats seized by prosecutors.
Chaouki said he believed it was possible “to overcome ideological rifts” within Letta’s left-right coalition government and find a majority in favour of reforming the law.
But immigration activists are less optimistic, particularly since the coalition includes Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party which helped vote the hugely controversial law in place.
“The government seems very stalled,” said Igiaba Scego, an Italo-Somali writer who heads up the association “Meetings of Civilizations”.
An announcement by the EU’s executive that it plans to beef up the Frontex border guard service has also proved contentious, with charities saying the organisation is more steered towards fighting illegal immigration than saving lives.
Italian divers said the death toll from the refugee shipwreck last week had risen to 309 after seven bodies were recovered on Thursday.
Sandro Triulzi, a historian of Italy’s colonial past in Africa said many Italian officials remain stuck in a “security” approach to immigration.
“The difficulty for Italy is to accept its multi-cultural character,” he said, adding that large-scale immigration only goes back 20 years in a country that used to be a land of emigration.
Triulzi said Italy “had not settled with its past and the loss of colonies is seen as a wound”.
“The migrant is still seen as a colonial subject, good for picking tomatoes or looking after elderly people for not much money,” he said.
For these immigration rights advocates, another key step in the cultural revolution they want to see is a reform of a law that grants Italian nationality on the basis of parentage.
Reform would be good news for the 500,000 children of foreign-born parents in Italy who have to wait until they are 18 to become Italian.
Italy also has a way to go on views about the five million foreign-born people on its soil — around 7.5 to 8.0 percent of the population — who represent some 12 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) even in an economy hit by crisis.
“The presence of foreigners is not discussed in pop culture, in television shows. In films, black women are prostitutes or maids, black men are drug addicts, gangsters or migrants at sea,” Scego said.
Campaigners also criticise the media for frequently mentioning nationality or skin colour in crime stories, reinforcing negative stereotypes.
An Italian student in Rome holds a paper boat reading “How many tombs without names in Lampedusa, No to Bossi Fini” in reference to the tragedy where at least 311 immigrants drowned and the Bossi Fini immigration law
But immigration also has a lot of success stories like the thousands of small businesses set up by foreigners. “Mohammed” this year became the most popular name for business owners in Milan.
There is also the story of Rashid reported by La Repubblica daily — a young Moroccan who lives by selling handkerchiefs and lighters and has just earned a doctorate in engineering.
The nomination of Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s first black government minister, who is in charge of integration, is also seen as a major improvement.
But the appointment has evoked strong reactions from anti-immigrant parties. She has had bananas thrown at her at a political rally and was compared to an orangutan by a leading senator.
Chaouki has called for less indulgence from the authorities in outright cases of racism.
He has also asked for the neo-fascist party Forza Nuova to be banned, along with other “who want a return to old ideologies of identity.
“They are trying to stir up young people, the unemployed, all the victims of the social crisis.”
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