More Immigrants Feeling Unwelcome In Europe

More immigrants feeling unwelcome in Europe

By Jeffrey Stinson
June 10, 2008

ROME For 35 years, Nura Hadzovic has lived in a gypsy camp on the edge of town, raising four children and working.

Yet this month, for reasons she doesn't fully comprehend, Hadzovic may become one of the latest casualties of the anti-immigrant backlash sweeping Italy and elsewhere in Europe.

Rome's new mayor has vowed to bulldoze 20 immigrant shantytowns in the city, including the one where Hadzovic lives. Giovanni Alemanno the first right-wing leader to serve as Rome's mayor since fascist Benito Mussolini ruled Italy during World War II also has promised to expel 20,000 immigrants with criminal records.

In a debate reminiscent of one occurring in the USA, many European leaders are under public pressure to tighten their borders and stop the rising crime and social strain caused by a tide of illegal immigrants.

Alemanno was greeted by some supporters on election night with a stiff-armed salute and cries of duce, or “leader” open signs of nostalgia for Mussolini, a dictator nicknamed Il Duce who collaborated with Nazi Germany.

Alemanno quickly distanced himself from the display, saying he doesn't want to be demonized and promising to be a mayor for all Romans. Yet immigrants such as Hadzovic say they are increasingly targets of hatred and intolerance.

“I don't understand what is happening,” Hadzovic says.

She lives behind an auto junkyard with about 600 Roma, as they are called, or gypsies. Most live in patchwork shacks of plywood and corrugated steel. Some, like Hadzovic, fashioned grim shelters out of the remnants of trailers along the camp's littered and unpaved roads. Plumbing consists of water hoses and portable toilets.

Hadzovic, 57, is originally from Bosnia, part of a long line of eastern Europeans who migrated to Italy and whose numbers grew in the 1990s when communist Yugoslavia broke up. The Italian government estimates 170,000 Roma live in the country.

“When I first came, nobody talked about Roma like they do now,” she says. “But now, things are different. They say we're criminals. I'm not a criminal. They (the city and police) know I'm legal. I have nothing to hide.”

'You'll never stop immigration'

Rich western European countries, which have some of the world's highest incomes and most generous social services, are dealing with immigrants from several regions: Africa, south Asia and eastern Europe, where living standards are much lower.

“Migratory pressure on Europe is huge and is destined to increase,” says Hugo Brady of the Center for European Reform, a London think tank. “Very few societies welcome large influxes of foreigners. But you'll never stop immigration. What the EU and member states are doing is trying to manage it.”

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who becomes the European Union's president July 1, is making a hard-line immigration policy the centerpiece of his six-month rotation to lead the 27-nation bloc.

The EU already is considering rules to allow illegal immigrants to be detained up to 18 months longer than currently allowed in two-thirds of the member countries.

Some Europeans fear the backlash may be going too far.

In Switzerland, where more than 20% of its 7.5 million population is foreign, voters recently rejected a measure that would have made it harder to gain citizenship.

In Italy, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi campaigned to crack down on illegal immigrants, describing them as part of “an army of evil.”

Louise Arbour, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, called Berlusconi's plan to jail illegal immigrants up to four years as “repressive” and proof of “growing xenophobic and intolerant attitudes” in Europe.

Europe's lengthy borders are more porous than in the USA for those in search of jobs and a better life, Brady says. He points to Greece and its 8,500 miles of coastline, 6,000 islands and 1,202 miles of land that borders Turkey, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania. The U.S.-Mexican border is 1,952 miles long.

Foreigners skittish over crackdown

Standing near the Spanish Steps in Rome, Arif Islam, 32, says he paid a smuggler 11,000 euros two years ago about $17,250 today to arrive from Bangladesh.

Islam says he makes a meager living selling trinkets and umbrellas to tourists, but still does better than he would back home. “We came here because we have no jobs. We have no opportunity,” Islam says.

Lorenzo Ciaffa, 22, who works in his family's grocery in Rome, support the crackdown on illegal immigrants.

“It's not right to judge every foreigner, but we do,” Ciaffa says. “There's a small group that is very bad, and they create very big problems. And we must do something about it and fast.”

Ciaffa says he is talking about Roma and especially Romanians, whom he describes as lazy and disrespectful of the law. African immigrants are different, he says. “They come because they are desperate, they want to work here,” he says.

About a third of Italy's reported crime is tied to foreigners, although only 5% of the 58.1 million population is foreign, says Antonio Locarno of the Carabinieri national police in Rome.

The issue heated up last month when a Roma camp in Naples was torched after an unconfirmed report that a 17-year-old Roma girl broke into an Italian woman's house to steal a baby. A few days later, police arrested nearly 400 illegal immigrants from northern Italy to Rome suspected in crimes.

“I would be lying if I said I wasn't worried about this,” says Najo Adzovic, 38, who has lived in the same camp as Hadzovic for 17 years after fleeing Montenegro. “We know that the government is taking action.”

Hadzovic, who has grandchildren living in the camp, says she won't leave when the bulldozers come.

“By what standard can they tell me this is not my home?” she says. “I'm not going anywhere.”

Contributing: Eric J. Lyman