Spate of Hate Crimes in Italy Sets Off Alarm Bells

There has been a swell of anti-immigrant sentiment in Italy, including attacks on the Roma population. Italy's politicians and Rome's new mayor, a former neo-fascist, are helping fuel anti-immigrant feelings.

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GUY RAZ, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

A recent spate of hate crimes in Italy is setting off alarm bells at human rights offices across Europe. Over the past few weeks, right wing vigilantes have attacked shops and neighborhoods inhabited mainly by foreigners. The anti-immigrant sentiment in Italy has reached a level even our correspondent Sylvia Poggioli hasn't seen in her four decades covering Europe.

Sylvia joins us now. What's this all about?

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Well, you know, I was very surprised by the degree of violence that has been unleashed in Italy, especially Rome, in recent weeks. You know, I first came here because I was attracted by this city's openness and its tolerance, and Italians in general were very welcoming to outsiders.

I remember going to the southern city of Brindisi in 1990 when the first boatload of thousands of Albanian refugees was arriving. And the entire town was out on the pier waiting with open arms, holding baskets and food and was very eager to help those people out. And I think that would not be possible today because as you mentioned there's just been a huge number of incidents.

Just in Rome last weekend, masked youths went on a rampage in a multiracial neighborhood. Then on Tuesday a group of right-wing thugs beat up a group of students at Rome University. And there have been at least two incidents of gays being beaten up by thugs.

And before youth threw Molotov cocktails at a Roma camp outside Naples and set their shacks on fire. And now neighborhood vigilante patrols are springing up in many cities.

RAZ: Wow. Sylvia, why is it happening now?

POGGIOLI: Well, you know, a lot of it has to do with the last election campaign. Silvio Berlusconi, the new prime minister, campaigned on an anti-immigrant platform. It's also true that, you know, in the last several years there's been tremendous inflow of illegal immigrants. Official statistics say that a third of all crimes are committed by foreigners.

RAZ: Is this new Italian government, this right-wing government, in a sense setting a tone that maybe seems to give license to this kind of behavior?

POGGIOLI: Well, that's certainly what some people fear because some of the language we hear by the politicians is quite alarming. The xenophobic trend was fueled, first of all, by the Northern League - it's the party that scored unexpected successes in northern Italy. One of its campaign posters showed a sad-looking native American in a feathered headdress with the words, he let in immigrants and now he lives on a reservation.

And after the Roma camp in Naples was burned down, the Northern League leader Umberto Bossi justified the attack by saying people are going to do what the political class cannot do.

RAZ: And I was struck to read the comments of Italy's new interior minister. This is the guy in charge of the police - Roberto Maroni. He seemed to blame attacks against Roma, or gypsies as they're disparagingly called, on the victims themselves.

POGGIOLI: Well, you know, the Roma have now been perceived as the number one enemy. The latest obsessive superstition is that the gypsies want to steal Italian children. There are about 170,000 Roma. Half of them are Italian citizens, and unique in all of Europe Roma in Italy are forced to live in squalid camps. And now the new government has vowed to shut down all the illegal camps and expel those living there.

And the government has already named illegal immigration a jailable offense.

RAZ: And the right-wing tilt is not just happening nationally, it's also happening locally, particularly in Rome with a new mayor, Gianni Alemanno, a former fascist himself. During this recent inauguration, I understand that people were raising straight-arm salutes, chanting El Duce, the name Mussolini gave himself.

POGGIOLI: Yeah, this was the biggest surprise because Rome had not had a right-wing mayor since the time of the Mussolini dictatorship. Now, Alemanno himself is a former neo-fascist youth leader with a violent past. He was arrested three times for taking part in far right demonstrations. For example, throwing Molotov cocktails at the Soviet embassy, and in 1989 trying to block the motorcade of President George Bush, Sr. on a visit to Rome.

Now, Alemanno has distanced himself from Mussolini but he wears...

RAZ: And he's condemned some of these attacks.

POGGIOLI: Yes. He denounced the recent vigilante attacks in Rome but his critics says that his election is seen by right-wing thugs as a license for violence against immigrants or anyone who is different. But, you know, the thing is that a lot of people ask (unintelligible), is this a return to fascism? Is Italy returning to fascism, and I certainly don't think that this is likely. It's a Democratic country and it's a member of the European Union and it has to abide by its rules and guidelines.

But what has changed in recent years is the cultural background to Italian politics. There's been a series of books and articles that have begun to put fascists and partisans on the same plain. And little by little Mussolini and the fascist period have been quietly rehabilitated.

And I've noticed that many newspaper kiosks now openly sell calendars with photos of Mussolini.

RAZ: Well, Sylvia, thanks for your perspective.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Guy.

RAZ: That's NPR's senior Europe correspondent Sylvia Poggioli.

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