Immigrant Issue Key In Italy’s Elections

Immigrant issue key in Italy's elections

By Elisabetta Povoledo
International Herald Tribune
Published: April 25, 2008

ROME: A crackdown on crime and tighter immigration controls have emerged as key issues in runoff elections this weekend after two women were recently raped in Milan and Rome, with immigrants accused of the crimes.

Candidates are squaring off in 5 Italian provinces and 43 municipalities, but the spotlight is on the mayoral race in Rome, where the conservative candidate, Gianni Alemanno, is in a neck-and-neck race against the center-left candidate, Francesco Rutelli, who served two terms as mayor here from 1993 to 2001.

The rapes last week of an American woman in Milan and a Lesotho woman in Rome, in which immigrants are accused, stunned Italians and abruptly shifted the focus of the mayoral campaign in the capital to Italy's increasingly uncomfortable relationship with its growing immigrant population.

The unease was underscored by the unexpected success of the anti-immigrant Northern League party in national elections 10 days ago. The Northern League doubled its support nationally, capturing 8.2 percent of the vote, and hit peaks of more than 25 percent in regions like the Veneto.

The Northern League took advantage of concern about crime and unregulated immigration, said Marzio Barbagli, a sociology professor at the University of Bologna.

“More than any other party,” Barbagli said, the Northern League understood “public fears and acted on them.”

Roberto Maroni, a top Northern League official, is widely expected to become minister of the interior, a post he held during Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's first short-lived administration in 1994. News reports in the past week quoted Maroni as saying that citizen safety would be a priority of the incoming government, including “a tougher line on illegal immigration,” which he linked to violent crime.

In Rome, both candidates for the runoff, being held Sunday and Monday, have pledged that they would put security at the top of their agendas.

Interior Ministry statistics released last Monday indicated that crime in Italy has grown less than 5 percent in two years, and even more slowly in Rome. The most significant rise was in house break-ins and muggings.

About 35 percent of all crimes were committed by foreigners, according to the Interior Ministry, with the list topped by immigrants from Romania, who have grown in number since it joined the European Union last year.

According to statistics from the first eight months of last year, the most recent available, about 16 percent of all foreigners charged with crimes were Romanian, a figure that rose to 75 percent in Rome.

“There is a problem of crime in Italy, certainly, but above all because foreigners live in precarious situations when they first come,” said Franco Pittau, coordinator of the annual immigration statistics report commissioned by Caritas/Migrantes, the social service arm of the Roman Catholic Church. The situation might be different, he suggested, if Italy implemented programs to assist new arrivals.

Maroni has said that the new Berlusconi government will consider taking steps against Romanians.

On Thursday evening, Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu of Romania telephoned Berlusconi to discuss the “recent spate of violence” involving Romanians in Italy, the Romanian government said Friday. The two leaders concurred that “the public perception of these facts must not harm Romanian citizens or bilateral relations” and agreed to meet as soon as Berlusconi takes office, the statement said.

Marcella Lucidi, the outgoing Italian undersecretary of the interior, who was responsible for immigration, said that if the entrance of Romania into the EU has created difficulties, “we should reflect on this at a European level,” including the countries of the former Eastern bloc.

“Italy can't act alone,” Lucidi said.

Still, when Giovanna Reggiani, a 47-year-old woman, died in Rome last November after being raped and beaten by a Romanian immigrant who lived in a Roma campsite, the prime minister at the time, Romano Prodi, appeased a horrified nation by passing an emergency decree allowing the police to deport EU citizens judged to be a threat to public security. Illegal Roma campsites in the capital were also rousted.

Concern about crime has led to the establishment of citizen's defense committees, at first mostly in towns controlled by the Northern League, but increasingly in cities governed by the left. Center-left mayors have also started talking tough, demanding greater powers to combat crime.

“Citizens' fears should be taken seriously, but politics has the responsibility not to fuel fear,” Lucidi said. “The real risk of a society that lives by fear is to divide people and that leads to ostracism and discrimination.”