Talking to locals and migrants in Macerata, Italy’s immigration flashpoint

"There's starting to be too many of them," says a young man at a bar in the central Italian city of Macerata. He does not wish to give his name, but the "them" he talks about are migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

Talking to locals and migrants in Macerata, Italy's immigration flashpoint
The town of Macerata in central Italy. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

The issue has dominated political headlines in Italy ahead of parliamentary elections next month.

“If you walk in certain areas at night, you see them in groups. You can't help but be scared,” the man says.

Fear of immigrants – and of a far-right anti-immigrant backlash – has overshadowed election discussions about the economy ahead of the vote on March 4th.

People in Macerata know the conflicting arguments better than most. At the end of January, the body of 18-year-old Pamela Mastropietro was found dismembered in two suitcases near the city.

A Nigerian man was arrested. Days later a far-right activist, Luca Traini, went on a two-hour shooting spree targeting African migrants in Macerata, injuring six.

'Alarming' messages of solidarity for Macerata shooter, lawyer reveals
A handgun in the back seat of the suspect's car. Photo: Giuseppe Bellini/AFP

The happy migrant

The events set off waves of condemnation, protests and counter-protests. Right-wing campaigners used the death of Mastropietro to promote their anti-immigrant message.

Within days, there were two small but headline-grabbing demonstrations from far-right groups in Macerata.

Then thousands of anti-fascists descended on the city.

Anti-fascist protesters rally in flashpoint Italian town
People take part in an anti-racism demonstration in Macerata on February 10th 2018. Photo: AFP

“It was a bolt from the blue for us, you know? We're not used to this sort of thing,” says Laura, a mother of six-year old twins, outside her children's school. “Macerata is a really peaceful city and it's been hard to deal with what happened.”

Madu Cisse, a migrant from Mali, was also surprised. “I wouldn't have ever expected something like that to happen here,” he says.

He made the perilous Mediterranean crossing from Libya to the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2011. He moved to Macerata and became a pastry chef. “I've been in Macerata pretty much since I arrived in Italy and I'm happy here.”

Support for attacker

Protests over large-scale immigration have rocked Italian politics since the beginning of the migrant crisis. More than 690,000 migrants have come to the country by boat since 2013.

But the numbers have been falling. After the EU agreed a controversial deal with Libya to intercept migrants, Italy received 119,000 migrants by sea last year, a third less than in 2016.

The ruling centre-left Democratic Party welcomed that reduction. But immigration remains a hot political issue. Polls indicate it is an important subject for around 30 percent of voters.

Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has pledged to deport 600,000 illegal immigrants if his coalition of Forza Italia and two far-right forces wins power.

Far-right demonstrators clash with police at banned protest in Macerata
Far-right demonstrators clash with anti-riot police in Macerata. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

“Lots of people say positive things about Traini,” the gunman who admitted to shooting migrants,” says one staff member at a local bar in Macerata, who wished to remain anonymous. “It's very common.”

Giancarlo Giulianelli, the lawyer representing Traini, told AFP he has received an “alarming” number of messages in support of his client's actions. He feels those are only “the tip of the iceberg”.

Anti-immigrant backlash feared

As well as the national election result, eyes will focus on the vote in Macerata to see if far-right parties gain from their pledges to “fix” Italy's migration problems.

Macerata has taken in a similar number of migrants to other Italian cities. Just over nine percent of its 42,000 residents are foreign nationals compared to 8.3 percent nationally, according to the National Institute for Statistics.

But analysts would not be surprised if the violent events of recent weeks lead to an anti-immigrant backlash. Far-right parties across Europe have enjoyed a surge in recent years, from Marine Le Pen's Front National in France to the anti-migrant Alternative for Germany to Italy's own Northern League.

Italy's anti-establishment Five Star movement has also seen a big boost in support.

In Macerata. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

“I personally have never had any problems in Macerata. When people see me around they say hello,” says Mohamed, a Somalian who arrived in Italy in 2009 and works in a petrol station.

“Everything depends on how you behave. If you behave correctly with people they will react well to you.”

But for minority groups living in the city, the election will be a test which risks confirming their worst fears.

“People tell you to go back to Africa,” says Gennaba Diop, a 23-year-old born in Macerata to Senegalese parents.

“The first time someone called me 'nigger' I was ten years old and it was by a boy and girl the same age as me. Since then, if anything, things have gotten worse.”

Italy is 'steeped in hate', Amnesty warns amid toxic election campaign
An anti-racism demonstrator in Macerata. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP


By Terence Daley


ANALYSIS: Italy’s hard right set to clash with EU allies over Russia

Italian election winner Giorgia Meloni may at first glance have much in common with ultra-conservative governments in fellow EU nations Poland and Hungary, but experts say that when it comes to real-world policy any alliance could soon run into limits.

ANALYSIS: Italy's hard right set to clash with EU allies over Russia

Reaction to Sunday’s strong result for Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party was muted from pillars of EU integration like Paris and Berlin, but Warsaw and Budapest were warm in their congratulations.

“We’ve never had greater need of friends sharing a vision of and a common approach to Europe,” the Hungarian government said, while from Poland came praise for Meloni’s “great victory”.

“Hungary and Poland are more than happy with this election, first because it relieves the pressure on their own countries in the EU, and second because it paves the way for a more united front,” said Yordan Bozhilov, director of the Bulgaria-based Sofia Security Forum think-tank.

READ ALSO: Polish PM hails far-right’s ‘great victory’ in Italian elections

The Italian election follows hard on the heels of a Swedish poll that also produced a surge for the extreme right.

But with the far right in power in one of the EU’s largest countries and founding members, Hungary and Poland could be far less isolated in their battles with Brussels over rule-of-law issues.

What’s more, Rome, Budapest and Warsaw are now set for alignment on social concerns, with anti-Islam, anti-abortion and anti-LGBT positions.

“Together we will defeat the cynical and pampered Eurocrats who are destroying the European Union, breaching treaties, destroying our civilisation and advancing the LGBT agenda!” Poland’s deputy agriculture minister Janusz Kowalski tweeted in a message congratulating Meloni on Monday.

Meloni also shares her prospective allies’ vision of a Christian, white Europe made up of sovereign nations.

EXPLAINED: What’s behind election success for Italy’s far right?

“Hungary and Poland are countries that want to change the EU from within, and they don’t hide it. So far they haven’t succeeded, but there will definitely be an attempt to create a Rome-Budapest-Warsaw axis,” said Tara Varma, director of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

But such parties’ demands have already moderated in recent years from full exit from the EU, “given the absolute cautionary tale that Brexit has been,” she added.

Instead, the axis could become “spoilers, the sand in the gears” in Brussels.

“One step forward, two steps back, they could prevent the EU making progress while continuing to benefit from joint funds,” Varma said.

– Splits over Russia –

 A front based on values could still founder when faced with today’s overriding concern of the war in Ukraine and EU relations with Russia.

While Meloni has so far matched Warsaw in declarations of support for Ukraine and for EU sanctions on Russia over its invasion of its neighbour, Hungary’s leader Viktor Orban – close to President Vladimir Putin – is

“At some point, Meloni will have to choose between Poland and Hungary,” Varma predicted.

The Brothers of Italy leader is not expected to bend her position to match those of her junior coalition partners, Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini, who are friendlier to Moscow.

READ ALSO: Italy’s Meloni begins tricky government talks after election win

“Regarding foreign policy, as far as we know Meloni backs the sanctions against Russia and Brothers of Italy is closer to Poland’s PiS (governing party) than Hungary’s Fidesz,” said Hungarian analyst Patrik Szicherle.

Meloni has “sent the right messages on Ukraine,” said Martin Quencez of the German Marshall Fund, pointing out Italy’s critical relationship with the US as a reliable NATO ally.

Once elected prime minister, she “has every incentive to have good relations with Brussels, not to enter a pitched battle,” said Paolo Modugno, professor of Italian civilisation at Paris’ Sciences Po university.

Meloni “is very aware of the Italian public’s problems, their fear of inflation and the economic situation. What’s urgent for her is to manage the crisis, not to take ideological risks,” he added.

Analysts suggest that the incoming government’s choice of top ministers, especially in the finance and foreign ministries, will clearly signal how Meloni plans to position herself in Europe.