Michael Day: Dream destination has turned into hell

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The Independent Online

Not long ago, Italy, the "Bel Paese", welcomed non-European immigrants with open arms. As a result many poor people from Eastern Europe and Africa made a beeline for one of Europe's richest and most beautiful nations.

Given the small numbers of extracomunitari, as non-Europeans are known, that existed then and the realisation that they were an unlimited source of cheap labour, the government carried on courting them.

In 1986 a law was passed assigning some rights to non-EU workers. This encouraged more arrivals, and by December 2000 the number of non EU-workers had risen from 300,000 in the mid-1970s to over one million.

But the promise of integration and good race relations never materialised. Immigrants were accepted as a source of labour – but not as equals.

As Michele Musolino, a cardiologist and former mayoral candidate in Rosarno, said this week: "You want to know how it came to this? We allowed these people in, but we never made them citizens. We gave them food and clothes, but no rights or status."

Even now, although extracomuni-tari are everywhere in Italy's cities, there are practically no non-European faces on television, or in the worlds of culture or politics.

Instead the catalogue of ugly incidents, big and small, accumulates month by month. Last week, while thugs in Rosarno were hunting African fruit-pickers with baseball bats, a local official of the anti-immigrant Northern League was labelling a Muslim cleaning lady employed in a provincial government office as a security threat and demanding her dismissal.

In Rome, the emergence of 20 metre-long racist banners in the football stadium in recent years raised eyebrows but attracted no repercussions. Then in September 2008 six African immigrants were shot dead by gangsters in Naples.

The increasing number of desperate, illegal immigrants from Africa, who risk their lives on boat journeys and land bedraggled and starving on the southern coast, has fuelled people's fear of immigration. It has also allowed the Northern League to flourish to the extent it is now a powerful coalition member of Silvio Berlusconi's government.

Last week a young Ghanaian engineering graduate summed up the experience of many. "I came here to find heaven," he told reporters. "But I found hell."