Friday, January 06, 2012
“New Italians”. The Paradox of Immigration and Crime in Italy.
Almost four years ago, the centre-right candidate for mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno played the law and order card and implicitly blamed immigrants for crime in Rome after a Romanian murdered an Italian woman. He won the elections but has not reduced violent crime. On Saturday, a young Chinese man, Zhou Zeng, and his 9 month old daughter were murdered apparently by two Italians in Tor Pignattara, an immigrant quarter.
Soon after his victory, he told John Follain of The Sunday Times "In the south of Italy the problem is the mafia. In Rome the problem is immigration: there's a large group of desperate people who survive in dodgy ways."
It is so easy to dump on immigrants and blame them for a host of social problems starting with crime. Populism and xenophobia rarely lose votes, especially on the right. Intuitively, too, the idea of poor immigrants as criminals has an initial ring of plausibility. Often there are numbers published which show the higher proportion of foreigners in prison than locals and sometimes the crime statistics for petty crime do genuinely show a higher level of foreign offenders than their overall presence would warrant. But these figures are equally often misleading – immigrants tend to be male, poor and young, precisely the class where most offenders come from. Many of the foreigners are in gaol precisely because they are foreign and are presumed to be liable to leave the country if granted bail or parole as natives often are.
These are pretty normal explanations for immigrant “crime”. In Italy, though, there is a paradox: in many areas, the foreigners are not only not more delinquent than Italians, or even as delinquent – no, they are actually more law abiding and contribute positively to crime reduction.
The paradox occurred to me at a conference in Denmark a year and a half ago in which we were compared organised crime in the two countries. Apart from the bike gangs which run most of the illicit trade, there are also immigrant gangs who also look after trade like the Danes. A minority in some communities turns to crime.
In Italy since the influx of foreigners, above all over the last decade or so, there are indeed foreign mafias. The regular Ministry of the Interior reports on organised crime have subheadings on “Chinese”, “Maghreb and North Africa”, “Nigeria”, “Russian”, “Romanian”, “Bulgarian”, “South American”, “Turkish” which often work closely with Italian groups.
The paradox is that in areas of organised crime like Sicily, Calabria and Campania, the immigrants are the ones who fight back against the mafia, camorra and ndrangheta usually more forcibly than the general population.
In September 2008, six west Africans (three Ghanaians and three from Togo) were killed in Castelvolturno just north of Naples, an area controlled by one of the most brutal camorra groups, the Casalesi. The first presumption was that if was part of a turf war between the camorra and the Nigerian gangs who have a licence to run drugs and prostitution there but none of the victims had anything to do with any organised crime group. They had been killed as a show of violence to keep immigrant labour in line.
The remarkable reaction was that instead of meekly accepting the camorra’s near monopoly of violence, the immigrant community protested and demonstrated in a way which no locals had ever done. These were people who picked fruit for €30, €40 a day and many lived in desperate conditions paying rent to the same landlords who were exploiting them. They put up with appalling pay and conditions without batting an eyelid but the murder of six of their fellow immigrants was too much. The day after the massacre, the west Africans protested, a protest which ended in a riot and almost became a battle between Italians and Africans. It was a vivid demonstration that poor immigrants were not prepared to put up with the overwhelming presence of the men of violence.
They had become part of the fight against organised crime in Campania and forced the police to increase their presence in Castelvolturno. They were part of the solution increasing legality and reducing violence.
Just over a year later, in January 2010, a group of orange and olive pickers in Rosarno in Calabria demonstrated against conditions and pay. As in Castelvolturno, most of them were west Africans, from Ghana, Senegal, Mali, Burkina, Côte d’Ivoire. The area is controlled by the ndrangheta or Calabrian mafia which has always had a tight rein on the labour market. Shots were fired at the demonstrator; this time no one was killed and the injuries were not serious. Once again, immigrants were revolting against organised crime in a way the local people rarely did.
They were almost all irregular and none wanted to play the hero but together they were not prepared to put up with potentially lethal violence.
After the demonstrations, they were moved to other parts of Italy. Some came here to Rome and bided their time at an empty factory on the Casilina, the SNIA, doing odd jobs, learning Italian (some of our students went to teach there) and jumping through the legal hoops to get a permit to stay. Volunteers from a local anti-racist association provided legal advice. A film was made about them, Andrea Segre’s “Sangue Verde” which was screened last year at the SNIA. There were some murmured complaints but the documentary is an eloquent testimony of their desire to lead normal lives… lives where the law protects them and is not just used to harass them.
Earlier this week, in Caulonia on the other side of Calabria to Rosarno a cooperative looking after work for refugees was bombed. No casualties but the ndrangheta uses little bombs as frighteners and for them, it is much better to have irregular and blackmailable immigrants.
Back in Rome Zhou Zeng’s killers were not mafiosi but they almost certainly were part of a local gang, one of many that are becoming increasingly important in some parts of town, or maybe “just” drug addicts in need of cash.
The reaction from not just the Chinese and other immigrant communities of Tor Pignattara but Romans of all sorts means that immigrants do not just enrich the host community with their culture and their labour, but they also add to a civic society.