Prior to the 1980s Italy didn’t consider immigration as a particularly pressing problem. Throughout its post-war history, in fact, the country had suffered far more from large-scale emigration, as thousands left the impoverished and largely job-less southern regions to become gastarbeiters in wealthier European countries like Germany. A massive influx of refugees from Eastern Europe, provoked by the fall of the iron curtain and the outbreak of war in neighbouring Yugoslavia, at the start of the 1990s changed the situation radically, leading to pressure for a comprehensive policy to regulate the legal position of foreigners entering Italy (both legally and illegally).
After tentative efforts in 1990 (the so-called Martelli law), the first real attempts at legislation came in 1998, during Romano Prodi’s first government, with the Turco-Napolitano law, named after the ministers inolved in commissioning the legislation – Livia Turco, now Minister for Health, and Giorgio Napolitano, now President of the Republic. While this legislation provided for guaranteed healthcare for legal and illegal immigrants, and other enlightened measures, it also allowed for various repressive measures including the establishment of the infamous CPT centres (Centri di permanenza temporanea e assistenza) where foreigners who are unable to provide proof of their identity and legal status are collected and held while deportation proceedings get underway. These centres have been criticised by organisations such as Amnesty international, Medici Senza Frontiere, and the Council of Europe committe on the prevention of torture , but have remained a cornerstone of Italy’s immigration policy with both centre-left and centre-right governments.
The 2001 election victory of Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition, the somewhat ironically named – at least for immigrants – Casa della Liberta [house of freedom] put immigration legislation firmly centre stage. Indicative of the importance given to the ‘immigration issue’ by the government was the fact that two party leaders of the coalition undertook to introduce new legislation, Gianfranco Fini (leader of the Alleanza Nazionale party, and deputy prime minister for much of Berlusconi’s administration), and Umberto Bossi (leader of the Lega Nord). The so-called Bossi-Fini legislation introduced further repressive measures, making it a criminal offence, for example, to disobey an expulsion order. Illegal immigrants found in Italy after having received a deportation order would face a jail sentence of between one to four years. At the same time labour market demand has forced both left and right wing governments to repeatedly introduce amnesties for illegal immigrants sponsored by Italian employers. So over fifteen years after the first attempts at ‘controlling’ immigration, a lot of legislation exists, coupled with a lot of grey areas. Grey areas that have a direct impact on the lives of thousands of people who make up Italy’s immigrant community.
Journalist Cristina Artoni decided to concentrate on some of the human stories that occur, between the commas and paragraphs of the legislation. Speaking about the title of the book she has published which collects these stories, l’amore ai tempi della Bossi Fini [love in the time of Bossi-Fini], she explains “it’s taken from the title of the book by Garcia Marques [Love in the time of Cholera], because he’s a master at recounting the surreal, and that’s the condition where we often find the, let’s say ‘non-Italian’ – It makes me uncomfortable sometimes to use the phrase foreigner…”
The real-life characters encountered by Artoni come from Togo, from Brasil, Cuba, the Ukraine, Canada, and find themselves in Italy not just for love: some for work, others to be with a loved one, some were even born here. What, then, where the criteria for choosing cases to feature in the book? “They had to be cases that would be illustrative of the panorama, the result of the Bossi-Fini legislation. So, together with a lawyer, we chose cases that could demonstrate how absurd this law is, that really does push people to end up in stories that verge on the surreal.”
Diving in at the deep end, one particularly tragic story is that of Amor, the Morrocan fiance of an Italian woman from Brescia, that was found dead in the boot of the girl’s Golf in August 2004, while she tried to smuggle him into Italy. In this particular case, though, isn’t it perhaps excessive to ascribe the blame for the tragedy to Italy’s entry regulations? The two were following procedures and had initiated procedures to get married, so the man would have eventually been allowed to enter Italy in some manner. Surely then it was, with all the respect and compassion that the case calls for, a death that was avoidable? Artoni doesn’t agree: “Yes, it could have been avoided, but from a certain point of view the two youths had already waited over a year! For someone in that type of situation – and maybe there’s no-one who finds themselves in this exact situation – it’s difficult to understand, but I think there’s an urgency to love, it’s even perhaps a bit embarrising to have to explain, but there is an urgency… When someone is in love, they want to shar their time, so I think that given that the prerogative to have a normal, non-illegal life in Italy was there, all this wasted time seems strange. I think also it highlights one of the tragic points of the Bossi-Fini law: it gives so much discretion to the embassies to make decisions over people’s lives. This was one of the stories that moved me the most, because to die in circumstances like that, when there was every possibility to be happy, has to be even more tragic”.
How much, though, are the difficulties that immigrants face linked to xenophobia, and racism, and how much simply to the administrative system in operation, notoriously bureaucratic also for Italian citizens. For example, I myself a number of years ago had to accompany a friend (who coming from a European member state, one would presume faces entry procedures that should be taken care of almost immediately) to the police headquarters in Bologna to request information about the form required for the now infamous ‘permesso di soggiorno‘ or foreigner’s permit of stay in Italy. At the time there was a specific office for information, which has now been closed, complicating matters further. Today one office, with two desks exists where a long queue of nervous people from both EU and non-EU countries line up to request forms, request information, collect permits [startlingly inefficient – one has to queue, for example, simply to get a form to fill in].
Returning to my friend and his arrival in Bologna, aware that this could simply be an isolated incident, I’ll never forget the bad manners and arrogance of the bureaucrat charged with giving information on how to make the application for permits. At a certain point, in response to my request for clarification on a point (how many photocopies should be attached to the form), she barked back at me ‘but you’re Italian aren’t you? Then you should understand our language’. I immagined to myself how difficult and terrifying it must be for someone recently arrived to have to deal with this kind of treatment. Someone who doesn’t speak the language, who feels hunted, who perhaps has arrived illegaly, paying an unscrupulous trafficker, and without any idea about Italian laws and ways, what safeguards do these people have to be treated ‘humanely’? Cristina has no doubts answering the question “Are we Italians racist?”, and responds with a dry ‘yes, we’re very racist. I’d say we’re racist and closed. We’re not used to accepting new cultures and this is a long process. I lived for a period in France, and it was one of the aspects that I liked the most, even if there, as we’ve seen with the explosion of the banlieues there are contradictions, but there is a multicultural aspect present in cities like Paris. We’re racist and tend to see, still, the foreigner as an enemy”.