Italy: New wave of racism scapegoats NGOs and refugees

District Attorney of Catania Carmelo Zuccaro accused some NGOs of being funded by criminal organisations, leading to a wave of criticise against NGOs that rescue migrants in the Mediterranean Sea
May 20, 2017

In recent weeks, there have been some worrying developments in the Italian political scene. Extremist, anti-refugee and xenophobic ideas are increasingly gaining ground.

In a growing climate of uncertainty and social instability, all major political forces seem to be riding the wave of discontent to raise their electoral profiles, rather than trying to calm things down.

It is clear the electoral campaign for the next general elections, which will be held at some point in the next year, has already begun — unofficially. The parties are clearly looking at how to bring in votes by any means.

Polemics against NGOs and refugees

A few weeks ago, the District Attorney of Catania, Carmelo Zuccaro, said: “In my opinion, some NGOs could be funded by criminal organisations, aiming at destabilising the Italian economy and taking advantage from that.”

It is not too much to expect that if Zuccaro really thought NGOs, in league with criminal organisations, were threatening the economic stability of Italy, then it would be his duty to provide real evidence to support his claims.

Obviously Zuccaro had no evidence, except for his “sixth sense”. Zuccaro’s “sixth sense”, however, has proven enough to trigger an indignant reaction from the right.

Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right Northern League (LN), did not pass up the chance to criticise NGOs that rescue migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. Salvini accused them of being the architects of an “invasion of migrants”, which, in his opinion, is taking place throughout Europe.

Giorgia Meloni, from the right-wing Fratelli d’Italia (FdI), feels the same way. Meloni described the alleged collusion between NGOs and the criminal underworld as “shameful” and insisted it must be ended.

The populist Five Star Movement (M5S) also jumped on the matter, strongly supporting Zuccaro and asking parliament to clarify the situation.

Naturally, the NGOs did not just sit back and watch this spectacle. The Italian branch of Doctors Without Borders answered the charges by denying any contact with criminal associations. It stressed its job was to save human lives, not to grow rich on the backs of the migrants.

It also openly invited politicians who criticised it to take part in its rescue missions, so that they could see with their own eyes what they are actually for.

These attacks are disquieting, not so much because they arise from ignorance, but because they clearly show that a strong sentiment of racism and intolerance is deeply rooted in Italian society.

The fact that significant parts of the population immediately assumed Zuccaro’s words were true is a grave problem. It implies the endorsement and legitimisation of the idea that it is not a right for migrants to be welcomed, but a privilege.

President of the Senate and former anti-mafia magistrate Aldo Grasso had to intervene by reminding Zuccaro that a good district attorney should not make such severe accusations without sufficiently solid evidence.

Zuccaro was interviewed by the parliament’s Anti-Mafia Committee, where he basically recanted his accusations. He claimed his words “had been misinterpreted”.

Indeed, he said the supposed collusion between NGOs and criminal organisations was “nothing but a working hypothesis” and that he never had “real evidence”.

This is weird. Zuccaro had claimed that he had evidence collected by means of phone tapping that could not be used under the law. However, facing the committee, it emerges that not only does he have no valid evidence, but he insists he never said he had.

But even assuming that Zuccaro’s words were misinterpreted, it is still not possible to minimise or justify the wave of racism generated by this surreal story.

A question arises: is Zuccaro interested in currying favour with right-wing and populist parties, perhaps with a view to a future political career? Or does he genuinely want to shed some light on a potentially illegal trade of migrants?

The right wing

For a long time now, LN and FdI have pushed the idea that a systematic and deliberate invasion of migrants is going on in Italy and Europe. They aim to close the borders and pass highly restrictive laws on migration, in accordance with the so-called “sovereignist front”, of which all the far-right European parties are part.

According to the sovereignists, immigration is the biggest cause of terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism. Therefore every migrant or refugee must be seen as a potential threat.

Moreover, Salvini repeats daily that refugees are “slackers” and “parasites” who live at the expense of Italian people and do nothing useful for society.

The far-right parties constantly spread the idea that welcoming migrants and refugees is not an obligation, and that those let in are privileged. From this concept, sentiments of xenophobia, intolerance and growing social instability inevitably develop.

The far-right has an evident interest in keeping social insecurity and discontent alive, as it is exactly the kind of situation in which they can grow.

The M5S is no better. It, too, is trying to exploit people’s fear and uneasiness for political advantage. Indeed, it not only blindly took the side of Zuccaro against NGOs, but also asked parliament to pass a new ad personam law under which Zuccaro could have legally used his (since revealed to be non-existent) evidence.

Maybe M5S members have forgotten that Italy already had a prime minister who used to pass laws according to his personal interests and political conveniences: his name was Silvio Berlusconi.

Despite Zuccaro’s retraction, none of the parties had the good sense to apologise.

The Democratic Party

The governing centre-left Democratic Party (PD), rather than standing against this shameful conservative wave, is indulging it.

Debora Serracchiani, the PD governor of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, recently added fuel to the racist fire by saying, in relation to a local crime, that “rape is a terrible crime, but it is even worse when it is committed by a migrant”.

Needless to say, she was criticised by the radical left and pro-refugee associations. Her party, however, has taken no action against her.

Moreover, PD interior minister Marco Minniti recently passed a restrictive law on immigration that aims to limit the presence of foreigners in Italy and facilitates the repatriation of “illegal immigrants”.

On top of this, the PD and center-right coalition government also passed a law on self-defence. This basically “softens” the principle of proportionality between the offence suffered and the consequent defence. It provides for more mitigating circumstances to the advantage of those who exercise self-defence.

In the context, this is a victory for the center-right parties, who have always advocated for a legal reinforcement of self-defence and vigilante justice.

This validates the detestable attitude according to which the majority of immigrants are criminals, and vigilantism and self-defence are the best way to feel protected.

The PD has endorsed the right wing’s policies on immigration and social security, intensifying the social conflict and (borrowing from British philosopher Thomas Hobbes) “the war of all against all”.

What to do?

It is very important to combat this wave of xenophobia and intolerance, which unfortunately is not limited to Italy.

First of all, we have to remember that when the right-wing parties denounce a possible illegal trade of migrants, they do not do that because they want migrants to be granted their human rights, but because they do not want migrants to come to their country.

We must counter the idea that refugees are privileged people, or that migrants are intruders, criminals or outcasts simply for being migrants. We also must firmly reject the logic of migrants as scapegoats.

The real intruders, the really privileged people, the real threat to our security, are the racists and the fascists. They are the ones who promote discrimination and inequality, aiming at creating a divided, classist and repressive society.

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