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The consequences of racism in Italy from the perspective of asylum

Alessandra Sciurba | Journal: Challenging Italian Racism [6] | Issues | Oct 2010

In the spring of 2009 the Italian Government declared to have made one of the most important steps in the war against illegal immigration when, for the first time,  hundreds of  migrants intercepted in the Mediterranean sea were deported back to Libya. The first case occurred on 6th May,[1] when the Italian authorities intercepted three rafts with 227 sub-Saharan refugees on board including 40 women, three of them pregnant. They were all ejected to Tripoli.

Some members of the military Italian police said they would never have told their children what they had been “forced” to do that day: “After realizing that they had been reported in Libya” – a policeman told – “migrants began to shout: Brothers help us! But we could not do anything, the orders were to escort them to Libya and we did it”.[2]

The same day, the Italian Minister of Interior Maroni said that this operation, which would have been followed by dozens of similar acts, had been “a success”, and many polls confirmed the broad consensus that these deportations have found in Italian public opinion. The edict handed down by the media and by the official political discourse was to have stopped the invasion of illegal people who had assaulted Italy for years producing insecurity, fueling crime, stealing jobs in times of crisis, and enriching ruthless smugglers who have amassed fortunes trafficking human beings.

No data has been put forward by the state to confirm these contentions, no concern has been expressed about a possible human rights violations, no word has been spoken about the juridical status, the biography and the path of those people rejected; or about the fact that Libya has never signed the Geneva Convention about refugees and has not ever recognized the right to ask for asylum. Libya, after all, has been rehabilitated in the global political landscape thanks to its cooperation in the management of migration from Africa to Italy. Already in 2005 the Italian Government had funded three detention centers for migrants in the land of Gaddafi and, bipartisan manner, all parties which have succeeded to power in the last decade have implemented forms of cooperation that have led to the recent “Partnership of friendship” that has permit the practice of rejections. The few authoritative voices, such as UNHCR and Council of Europe, who tried to restore some truth about the victims and the effects of these deportations, have gone unheeded. In fact this practice continues without any real opposition, although it violates both Italian and International laws; it is one of most ruthless and illegal acts that Italian government has perpetrated since WWII. Behind the political decision to deport immigrants to Libya, and behind the apparent public consensus is hidden a specific and cogent racism that constructs an imaginary of immigration in Italy based entirely on falsehood.

The violence of this act is coupled with an absolute irrationality as regards to the aims officially declared by those who ordered to put these deportations in place.

Moral panics over issues of immigration and asylum is a feature that pervades the entire European Union; what has happened in Italy in recent decades is a perverse falsification of reality, so pervasive that its exceptionality has become normalized. Even Foucault, referring to the period of the “great confinement” of the end of seventeenth century, described the power inherent in certain types of speeches that “can kill” even though “are laughable” as they lack any credibility. Grotesque speeches become authoritative enough to guide political and legislative interventions that have a profound effect on the lives of racialized categories of people. Racism functions as a mode of governmentality in contemporary Italy, which permits the state to legitimate the separation and inferiorization of its minoritized population, by ascribing its collective behaviors as deviant.

In a society completely devoid of perspective and values, in which the only forms of government are the demagoguery and the representation – as violent as almost always based on nothing – of a clash between the government and the opposition parties. Racism, even in its most raw and un-presentable form, is easily utilized as an instrument of containment of social anxieties, and as a means of diverting attention from many failures of national governments in the face of globalization and its economic and political crisis.

The form of racism maturing today is a dynamic one, creeping and increasingly sophisticated, but no less real and violent. While the League Nord – the Italian party that utilized  racism for building its political success – was electing the first black (women) mayor in Italy, and was beginning to co-opt, within its gazebo in local markets, some migrants were persuaded to make propaganda for this party; yet its representatives were at the same time writing the new exclusionary norms of  the so-called “security package”. The new law has transformed ‘unlawful’ presence in the territory into a penal crime with the consequence of instigating a public denunciation of undocumented migrants. The symbolic scope of this measure is clear: the formal penalty is a fine that no immigrant will ever be able to pay; the real one is the a brutal criminalization. The whole system of Italian ant-immigration policies is based on the hypocrisy of laws that ‘force’ immigrants into conditions deemed illegal. Even in the case of domestic workers and care- givers – categorized as the most “good” and “useful” among immigrant – the immigration amnesty of 2009 actually discouraged rather than encouraged their regularization, through an expensive and complex bureaucratic procedure. The choice to regularize or not these workers has been entrusted to the “benevolence” of their “masters”, while the conditions of ‘neo-slavery’ persist even by the seemingly democratic and progressive elements of the Italian society.

Whether it be a project deliberately planned, or it be an intersection of political myopia, institutional racism and opportunism, it seems to have been orchestrated with the intent to produce a mass of people not only without rights, but emphatically criminalized – ready to be used and exploited for economic and political purposes. One of the consequences and assumptions the system is an erasure of the right to ask for and to obtain political asylum.

The “anxiety of invasion” and the sense of insecurity which justified this abject immigration policy is fabricated through media over-exposure of news of so-called “boat-people”, refugees fleeing from poverty, conflated with economic migrants. These groups, implicitly linked each other, resulted in a political message that the Italian population had to be defended from this dangerous “invasion”, by any means necessary. The same language utilized to represent the arrival of immigrants by sea had an important role in the construction of this fear-mongering: words were always chosen from an imaginary of war (invasions, assaults) or flooding (tidal, waves) or pietistic and dehumanized (desperate people willing to do anything), paving the way for justifying violent state reactions. Nevertheless, the reality of the situation tells a different story: statistics indicate that crime among immigrants is not any higher than among other Italians. Moreover, only a small percentage of undocumented migrants arrived by sea; most of these are over-stayers (expiry of their visa) or those groups which have lost their jobs and their permit of stay.

According to UNHCR estimates, the vast majority of migrants who have entered via the coastline of South Italy in recent years – entrusting their lives to smugglers and to benevolence of the sea – were in fact potential asylum seekers; those who are unable to negotiate with Embassies for a visa, and often fled with almost no belongings. It does take great insight to discover that the significant reduction of the relatively small number of requests of asylum in Italy between 2008 to 2009 has been halved (from 30,492 to 17,633), with the new practice of rejection at sea. These groups of people  –  the most vulnerable – have a full right to be accepted according to International, National and EU laws Yet, Italian immigration policies based on a sea of lies perpetuate illegal and inhuman racist acts.


1.  For a complete list of Italian deportations to Libya see Fortress Europe – http://fortresseurope.blogspot.com/2006/01/libia-elenco-dei-respingimenti.html  [↑]

2. Viviano, F., Ho eseguito gli ordini ma mivergogno, Quei disperati ci chiedevamo aiuto, From La repubblica.it (05/09/2009) [↑]

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