Immigrants Forced To Margins Of Italian Society Once an exporter of laborers, Italy now finds itself importing workers from abroad. Despite this need, many Italians feel they are the victims of an immigrant "invasion." Discrimination against foreigners is widespread, and there has been a recent surge in racist attacks.
NPR logo

Immigrants Forced To Margins Of Italian Society

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Immigrants Forced To Margins Of Italian Society

Immigrants Forced To Margins Of Italian Society

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Italy was once a poor country, and millions of its citizens went abroad to find work. Now, workers flood in from other countries. Italy needs the workers since the native population is aging - which does not mean that Italians are eager to welcome the newcomers. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has the second part of her series on minorities in Europe.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Castel Volturno is located on the coast 20 miles north of Naples. Once a summer resort, it's now called Little Africa, home to 6 to 8,000 black people who live in rundown condos and gather at Internet cafes like this one. Most immigrants here eke out a living in a gray economy controlled by the Camorra, the local mafia. Last fall, hit men gunned down six Africans who probably broke the rules.

M: This is Camorra's land. It is not a no-man's land because it's Camorra's land.

POGGIOLI: Jean-Rene Bilongo is a social worker who comes from Cameroon. He says the Camorra controls this large pool of cheap labor. The workday starts at 5 a.m. It's a long wait for a ride to Naples. Buses are so full, the worker often waits for a second or third bus before reaching his destination, a day-labor site.

M: He goes to a junction or a roundabout, stands there with the hope that somebody will come and pick him for a daily occupation, daily job. The pay is 25 to 30 euros, depends whether the sandwich is included or not.

POGGIOLI: Most immigrants in this town are illegal, without documents. Bilongo says they're abandoned.

M: We are still considered as ghosts, something just less than human beings. No one is interested in your condition, your future and your past - no one at all.

POGGIOLI: Italy now has an estimated 4 to 5 million immigrants, about 7 percent of the population. Surveys show that among Europeans, Italians are the most suspicious about immigrants. A majority believes they have too many rights, and that many of them should be deported. And most Italians say immigration has brought only crime. Xenophobia is strongest in the north, where most immigrants have regular jobs.


POGGIOLI: Citadella, the Citadel, is a small town, one of the few with perfectly intact medieval walls surrounded by a moat. It's living up to its name. Mayor Massimo Bitonci has sharply restricted immigrants' rights to live here. His ordinance sets a high threshold - a regular work contract, a minimum income of $5,000 per family member, and a home size that's too expensive for most immigrants. Mayor Bitonci says the town feels besieged.

M: (Through Translator) We are very frightened by what we see around us. We write the rules here. We want to safeguard our culture. Yes, we are raising the drawbridge, and we are on the battlements to defend ourselves from external attacks.

POGGIOLI: The northern city of Padua boasts a history of glorious guests. Giotto painted here, and Galileo taught mathematics. But now, nobody wants outsiders. Residents allege out loud that immigrants bring only disease, and a local Northern League politician claims that with all their different languages, immigrants bring only chaos.

MICHAEL: It is very difficult for a black man to ride a bus here.

POGGIOLI: Twenty-nine-year-old Michael - he wouldn't give his full name - is Nigerian. We meet at a ramshackle phone center near the Padua train station, a gathering point for many immigrants. Every time he takes a bus, he sits at the back because, he says, Italians look at him as if he were an alien creature.

MICHAEL: They don't like black immigrants. The black man has a brain, you know? They don't give the chance to utilize what he have. They don't allow black man to open up what is in their mind. You understand what I'm saying?

POGGIOLI: The language Italians hear from the mass media and politicians is disparaging about The Other. One Northern League minister calls Africans Bingo Bongo. Roma people, or gypsies, as they're sometimes called, are often depicted on TV as kidnappers of white children. And Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi made international headlines by describing the newly elected Barack Obama as young and tanned.

M: We need really a kind of ecology of language in a multicultural context.

POGGIOLI: Jean-Leonard Touadi is the only black member of the Italian parliament. He believes insensitive language has increased Italians' fear of immigrants. Politicians' favorite buzzword, he says, is security.

M: Security means, first of all, all migrants are criminals or potentially criminals. And this is not true. That means to indicate to the Italian population what is the heart of their insecurity.

POGGIOLI: Italy's colonial rule in Africa in the last century has not helped Italians adapt to immigrants.


POGGIOLI: The anthem of the Fascist army in Africa promised a young girl - a little black face - the glories of the Fascist empire. But Italy's colonial period was brief, violent, and filled with military defeats. Lucia Ghebreghiorges, an Italian of Ethiopian origin, says many Italians still see their former colonial subjects as enemies.

M: This is why they are unprepared for immigration. We are part of the future of this country, but they still see us as barbarians.

POGGIOLI: Many Italians are worried about what the media calls a racism emergency. Italian President Giorgio Napolitano has even called on the Catholic Church to help Italians overcome racism. MP Touadi says Italy must realize it's no longer a monocultural society.

M: We have to work hard inside society, in the schools, in universities, in newspaper, to raise up a new generation of Italian and to change, to make a change behavior in the way of speaking and approaching problems. First of all cultural transition, and then only political transition.

POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.


INSKEEP: So that's immigration in Italy. Sylvia was in Germany yesterday, France tomorrow. And you can read more about her experiences in compiling this series in her Reporter's Notebook at our Web site,

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.