More than 800 Somali and Eritrean refugees were violently evicted on August 24 from a building they were occupying in the centre of Rome. The occupation, which began in 2013, had come to symbolised the inefficient and broken nature of refugee reception policies in Italy.
Riot police were sent in to evict the refugees, without any warning or providing occupiers with any alternative solution. All of them, including the elderly, pregnant women and children, were thrown out onto the street.
As the refugees protested their eviction, police responded with batons and water cannons. During the clashes, one of the police officers ordered the others to “break the arms of migrants” if they refused to “shove off”.
It is clear that the national government, the Prefecture of Rome and the Rome City Council have not only failed to adequately deal with the situation; they are aggravating it to the point of creating an emergency crisis.
Even the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expressed concern regarding the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Italy. Its appeals, however, have fallen on deaf ears.
The eviction was just the latest in a string of similar events: in recent months, the government has cleared out other refugee and community centres.
The refugees in Rome exposed the serious deficiencies of the Italian reception system: most of them are legal residents but have been waiting since 2013 for formal recognition of their refugee status.
In response, they set up a self-managed reception system in the heart of Rome, demonstrating that a more efficient system is not only possible, but preferable.
The same applies for the community centres in Bologna that were shut down. There, occupants had refurbished abandoned areas and set up open and inclusive spaces and amenities, such as activity areas for children and markets for local producers.
What the refugees of Rome and the community centres of Bologna have in common is that they represent a real and viable alternative to the state and are examples of inclusive and plural democracy built from the bottom up. That is why the state has repressed them at any cost – even with violence.
All of this has taken place within the context of the government’s broader campaign against refugees and NGOs. The controversy over refugees and NGOs has reached fever pitch in recent months.
Italy’s parliamentarians have been almost unanimous in their support for this campaign – the only exceptions being the Italian Left (SI) and a section of the Progressives. They have accused NGOs of being in league with human traffickers and illegally rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean Sea.
Interior minister Marco Minniti, from the centre-left governing Democratic Party (PD) has proposed a code of conduct for NGOs engaged in rescuing migrants off Italy’s coast.
The so-called Minniti Code would oblige NGOs to have armed police officers on board during rescue operations (as if migrants were dangerous criminals) and would forbid transferring rescued migrants onto safer boats.
Most NGOs, including Doctors Without Borders, have rejected the Minniti Code, as it violates international agreements and ignores humanitarian principles such as the prioritisation of saving lives above all other concerns.
With elections next year, most parties are focused exclusively on winning votes; for them, NGOs, refugees and migrants are useful scapegoats and potential vote winners.
It is not surprising that far-right parties, including the Northern League (LN), and the populist 5 Star Movement (M5S), are riding the wave of racism and xenophobia to increase their electoral chances.
With the PD losing ground to the right, particularly over the migrant issue, it has shifted it policies in an increasingly conservative direction, legitimating its opponents’ positions in the process.
The threat of terrorism and the popular demand for national security are no excuse for this conservative shift: a left-wing party should seek to convince people that nationalism and conservatism are no solutions to their problems. But this is exactly where European social democrats are failing, instead choosing to indulge the growth of reactionary sentiments.
Only the radical left, SI and Communist Refoundation, together with other minor parties and movements, have had the courage to take the side of NGOs and refugees.
The left must refuse to blame migrants for the current situation and reject the divide-and-rule policies of those in power. Unless we understand that our problems are not due to people in desperate conditions, but the fault of a broken system, things will remain the same.