Rioting in Italy underscores rising tension over immigration

By Frances D’Emilio
Associated Press / January 10, 2010

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ROME - Bloody clashes between African migrants and residents in one of Italy’s poorest regions over the past few days brought home a national dilemma yesterday: Many Italians don’t want to pick crops in the south or toil in the north’s factories, but resent the desperate foreigners who will work for a pittance.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi last year dismissed any notion of a “multiethnic Italy.’’ His conservative coalition, which includes the anti-immigrant Northern League party, has repeatedly cracked down on illegal immigration, sometimes drawing the ire of human rights advocates, UN officials, and the Vatican.

With opinion surveys indicating that many Italians blame immigrants for crime, tensions persist between citizens and foreigners - and sometimes erupt into violence, as they did these past days in Rosarno, a town in Calabria, an underdeveloped southern agricultural region with chronic unemployment.

At least 38 people were wounded in the violence, which began Thursday night when two migrants were shot with a pellet gun in an attack the migrants attributed to racism. Violence continued Friday with clashes involving Africans, Rosarno residents, and police. Among the seriously wounded were three migrants beaten with metal rods.

By yesterday, the violence had largely subsided, except for a pellet gun shooting that wounded a migrant on the outskirts of town, police said, and authorities began busing out some of the hundreds of angry migrants.

Just over a year ago, two migrants were shot in Rosarno, one losing his spleen, said Laura Boldrini, an official from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Italy. Then, the migrants reacted with a “peaceful march.’’

This time “the immigrants reacted with violence, and this in turn triggered a spiral of violence,’’ the UN official said.

Many of the migrants in Rosarno came from Italy’s north after factory jobs dried up last year because of the economic crisis, Boldrini said. That increased the migrants’ pool of labor for back-breaking dawn-to-dusk crop picking, paying about $30 to $37.50 a day.