Italy's Media Wrestle With Immigrant-Bashing

FLORENCE, Italy--It sounds fairly benign in English, but in Italian clandestino has become a term of hot debate. Clandestinos are the "illegals" in Italy’s immigration debate. It’s the word for the country’s million-plus immigrants without papers. The word comes loaded with negative connotations. Now, Italian media observers are asking if the word itself is not fanning flames of xenophobia.

Not that there is any lack of that in Italy. Robert Elliot, a British media observer based in Italy showed me a list of headlines that had appeared recently in Italian media. Headline writers have no problem putting the race and ethnicity of alleged perpetrators of crimes in their copy, no matter if the crime had anything to do with their race.

For example:

"Argues with girlfriend – Sets fire to divan – Handcuffs for an Egyptian"

Albanians ‘Lords’ of the drugs


Nine immigrants in abandoned farmhouses – only one was illegal

Some Italian journalists are worried about the stereotyping of immigrants by the media. The Italian National Press Federation and the National Council of Journalists Association have come up with a Charter of Rome, which is a code of conduct asking journalists to "exercise the highest care in dealing with information" regarding refugees, asylum seekers and victims of trafficking."

But it doesn’t go far enough, said Lorenzo Guadagnucci, a journalist fighting against racism in media and promoting multicultural media. He said that not enough journalists subscribe to it yet, and the Charter of Rome, which came out of work with the UNHCR, really focuses on asylum seekers rather than migrants in general.

And there is plenty of negative stereotyping of migrants even when they are not seeking asylum.

La Padania, the newspaper of an anti-immigrant right-wing political party had a front-page headline that proclaimed, "Not Enough Jobs – Send Them Back."

In the town of Prato, home to one of Italy’s largest Chinese communities, there is already a backlash. The Chinese, many of whom work in garment factories, and have businesses in both Italy and China, are being accused of unfair business practices. Anti-immigrant politicians have won seats on the city council with the help of some Chinese-bashing rhetoric.

Now the media are debating whether words like clandestino are adding fuel to the fire. Some Italians wonder if it would not be better to use the word “without papers” instead, said Anna Meli, of COSPE, a nonprofit that works on issues relating to migrants and the media.

There are about 4 million immigrants in Italy and another one million without papers. Some crossed into the country illegally. Many more have overstayed their visas.

But the immigration debate here is really fed by anxiety about a changing society. In Florence, home of Italy’s high renaissance, the epicenter of all that’s quintessentially Italian, migrants are everywhere. Bangladeshis sell chestnuts in the piazza. African immigrants tout guidebooks to gaggles of Japanese tourists. Romanian immigrants take care of Italy’s elderly. Italians see this but are not always ready to admit that their country is changing. Instead some cities pass regulations about Döner Kebab shops in the hopes of hiding the face of migration. Lurid stories of Roma gypsies kidnapping babies turn from urban legends into accepted wisdom.

In one famous story of Florence’s historic identity, when Pope Boniface VIII received the ambassadors of foreign states, they all turned out to be Florentine in origin. "You Florentines are the quintessence," pronounced the pope famously, a fact immortalized in a fresco in Florence’s Palazzo Vechhio.

Centuries after Boniface VIII, Italians wonder what is quintessentially Italian as migrants from Romania and Morocco and Bangladesh land on the streets of Italy. After all, many of these immigrants don’t even eat Italy’s famous cured hams and prosciutto. An Arab journalist told me that after years in Italy the question he gets asked the most is still, "But why don’t you eat pork?"

Italy complains that these new immigrants do not integrate into Italian society, yet it also makes it extremely difficult for the children of immigrants to become citizens if one parent is not Italian. As a result, Italy has created a second generation that was born and raised in Italy but lives under the specter of deportation, often to countries they have never visited, whose language they do not speak.

Still, the reality on the ground is changing, said Enzo Mangini, a journalist with the weekly, Carta. The workers who produce Parmesan cheese, that symbol of Italy, are mostly from India.

"The owners of the farms and factories know that no one can take care of cows like Indians," said Mangini.

Immigrants are not just taking care of Italy’s cows; they are also bringing their culture into Italy. Cities like Rome now have several cricket clubs. The Italian team actually won the Under-15 European championship. But their national pride was short-lived, said Mangini. Thanks to Italy’s citizenship laws, it turned out that only a couple of the team members were actually Italian.

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