Italy : The grapes of wrath are ripe

African immigrant in Rosarno, Italy, 9 January 2010, one day after rioting in the Calabrian town. (AFP)
African immigrant in Rosarno, Italy, 9 January 2010, one day after rioting in the Calabrian town. (AFP)
La Stampa (Turin)

The African migrant workers’ riots in the province of Gioia Tauro, in Calabria, after two of them were shot with airguns, once again lifts the curtain on their deplorable living and working conditions. Now required to leave the city, these illegal immigrants in Rosarno as elsewhere, are often the only people to rise up against the mafias that reign supreme in several regions.

The future in which we are now immersed begins in the plain of Gioia Tauro: in Rosarno, a town in the province of Reggio Calabria, where an out-and-out guerrilla war took place from 7–10 January, and in Castel Volturno [the site of similar riots in 2008]. The gravest problems facing our civilisation are coming to a head here in the microcosm of Rosarno: whole populations fleeing poverty and war; the pall of fear poisoning the lives of immigrants and residents alike; the bloodthirsty xenophobic manhunt; and the global spread of organised crime. What is more, there is no stopping immigration because for some time now no Italians or nationals of other rich countries have been willing to do the drudgery work Africans do for the same meagre wages. And then there is the hypocrisy of those who believe the answer lies in re-establishing a monocultural identity. The blacks in Rosarno are clashing with armed community watch groups that are infiltrated by the 'Ndrangheta [Calabrian mafia]. The interior ministry argues that the riots are not linked to the mafia, but to illegal immigration, which it aims to eradicate and thereby remedy all the attendant evils. This is a delusion. When riots broke out in the French suburbs back in November 2005 and Romano Prodi said Italy would not be spared this global phenomenon, he was derided and disbelieved.

But recent events in Italy have borne him out. It is true that for years Italy’s sinister reputation has terrified immigrants. Much of Europe has a sinister reputation, to be sure, but that does not excuse our misdeeds and our silence. When our government ministers point to immigrant uprisings in Spain or France, this is the ultimate in effrontery, as though others’ mistakes somehow ennobled our own. As though Italy didn’t have that little extra evil, namely the mafia. The recent riots are, in fact, the upshot and clear-cut manifestation of misgovernment. The latest riots have a long history behind them. Those in Rosarno who have wreaked havoc in reaction to an umpteenth attack on black farm labourers are the same ones who rose up against the 'Ndrangheta in December 2008. Four of their fellow immigrants had been injured, and the Africans then did something Italians have not done for years: they took to the streets demanding more government, more justice, more legality. They collaborated courageously with the judicial investigations, breaking the reign of silence and taking great risks upon themselves. Though without the protection of residency permits, they openly denounced the aggressors.

A vast and ongoing exodus

So it’s true: as Roberto Saviano, the author ofGomorrah, says, the Africans are going to save Rosarno and maybe even Italy. A little over a year ago, it may be remembered, on 19 September 2008, Africans in Castel Volturno rose up in protest when six fellow immigrants were shot dead by the Camorra [Neapolitan mafia]. The disaster that ensued was foreseeable, given the conditions in which these Africans are forced to live, which have been deplored by various anti-mafia organisations. The video made byMédecins Sans Frontières in 2009 speaks of a humanitarian crisis in Gioia Tauro. One would be hard put to find a better term to describe the plight of the denizens of these derelict industrial sites, where sad shadows of men dwell in makeshift cardboard shelters or tents without sanitary facilities, amid fires and huge mounds of garbage. These wastelands call to mind Gaza and the slums of Pakistan: it is not so much the primitive living conditions as the obscene combination of modern industrial architecture, abject poverty and apartheid. Like the protagonist in Rimbaud’s poem, we voluntarily lap up lies when we claim this obscene situation stems from excessive tolerance shown towards illegal immigrants. We are the ones who have called in the Africans to pick oranges, well aware that nobody in their right mind would work such long hours (16–18 hours a day) for those wages (€25 a day, €5 of which goes to mafia recruiters and bus drivers).

Médecins Sans Frontières video shot in Rosarno, December 2009

Now that we have acquiesced in all that, and poured millions of euros into the region that ended up in the wrong pockets, no wonder things have come to such a pass. If, as the videos suggest, we do not treat these Africans as our fellow men, sooner or later we’re bound to reap the “grapes of wrath”, as John Steinbeck put it. The spread of climatic disasters is going to cause a vast and ongoing exodus. Large-scale crises need to be addressed by taking ambitious action, breeding new forms of solidarity. We need to “think big” when it comes to integration if we are to prepare now for what lies ahead. They say that, in renouncing our roots and living surrounded by people unlike us who are forcing us to become a multicultural society, we are losing our cultural identity. This is a lie. In fact we have already changed: not because multiculturalism is already a reality, but because ours is no longer the openminded, hospitable, porous identity it was back when ourselves were emigrating en masse and faced with violence. The identity that we have lost can only be retrieved if we do not betray it by inventing a false identity – if we find that the problem we face is not that of Italian identity, but of the identity of the human race.

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