Black Immigrants Under Siege In Italy

Hundreds of African immigrants have been evacuated from a town in Southern Italy, after some of the worst racial violence in that country since World War II. The evacuations began yesterday, following three days of clashes in the town of Rosarno. Host Michel Martin speaks with John Hooper, the Italy correspondent for the Guardian for more on this situation.

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I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we'll meet the new president of Africare. It's one of the largest American aid and development groups operating in Africa, and the largest run by African-Americans. We'll hear about his plans for the organization in just a few minutes.

But first to Italy, where hundreds of African immigrants have been evacuated, some say forced, from a town in Southern Italy after some of the worst racial violence in that country since World War II. The evacuations began yesterday following three days of clashes in the town of Rosarno.

Joining us now to talk about all this is John Hooper. He is the Italy correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardian. And he is in Rome right now. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Mr. JOHN HOOPER (The Guardian): Not at all, my pleasure.

MARTIN: John, how did this start?

Mr. HOOPER: It began with three white youths who grew up outside a disused factory in which the immigrants sleep in conditions which everyone agrees are appalling and which one church leader called inhuman - and opened fire with air pistols or rifles, wounding two of them. A completely unprovoked and apparently motiveless attack, that's what set it off. The reaction was that about a hundred of the immigrants, armed with staves and bars, set off into the town and did considerable damage and clashed with police. That was last week.

MARTIN: There have been reports that there may have been some involvement of organized crime. Do you think that that's true?

Mr. HOOPER: Certainly, there are indicators that that is true, but the prosecutors in the area say they still don't have any conclusive proof. What happened after the demonstration was that there were a series of incidents involving, evidently, racial attacks on members of the immigrant community in Rosarno, which is made up mainly of crop pickers who harvest oranges and clementines in the surrounding fields.

They were picked on by men wielding baseball bats, in some cases. In other cases, they were shot at. Now, three arrests have been made of people accused of carrying out these attacks. All of them either have a criminal record or are members of known Mafia families. So there is a strong presumption that what the local Mafia, which is known as the Ndrangheta, tried to do was to take over this racist backlash and make it their own so as to reinforce their standing in the community among those sorts of people.

MARTIN: And what overall is sort of - is the context here for this kind of behavior? I mean, are these immigrants out of status? And are they - are they perceived as taking jobs from Italians? Or what is the purpose of this? Or is this basically - forgive me - hooliganism? I mean, these kids see a target and they're bullies, and they just see somebody to pick on.

Mr. HOOPER: I think there's an element of both. On one level, there is evidence that these kinds of attacks have been going on for some time. Last year, almost exactly a year ago, there was an attack in which two other African immigrants were wounded in a gun attack. A book published last year speaks of how hunt the black is a favorite pastime among some young bucks in Rosarno. There is that background. At the same time, there is an economic background because these people arrived for the annual harvest in December, only to find that it was going to be going on at a very much lower level than in previous years.

About 80 percent of the oranges in that area are just being left on the trees to rot. So you had a great deal of frustration among these people on the one hand, and a minority - at least - on the other side in the resident community who had a racist and violent attitude towards them. It was a bomb that was going to explode at some point.

MARTIN: It sounds like it. It sounds like - just the sort of the straw that broke the camel's back, as it were. So finally, John, what's the reaction to all this in Italy? And is there some sort of ongoing implication from it? Is there some ongoing impact of this?

Mr. HOOPER: There is. I think that there's a great deal of soul-searching going on about the level of racism in the society. L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's official newspaper, yesterday in an article suggested that there was much more racism than Italians are prepared to recognize. And today, the latest is that Egypt has protested to Italy about these attacks, saying that it's not taking care of Egyptian citizens on Italian soil.

MARTIN: John Hooper is the Italy correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardian. He was kind enough to join us from his office in Rome. John Hooper, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. HOOPER: My pleasure.

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