May 11, 2009

Berlusconi rejects 'multi-ethnic Italy' idea

Silvio Berlusconi

Silvio Berlusconi has responded to criticism of his government's decision to send 200 "boat people" back to Libya, by saying that his party rejects the idea of a "multi-ethnic" Italy. The decision to return refugees without giving them the opportunity to apply for asylum conforms to the intolerant thinking that is increasingly a feature of Italian governance.

Whether Berlusconi likes it or not, Italy has become increasingly multi-ethnic, especially urban centers that attract large numbers of immigrants. These migrants form a vital part of Italy's workforce.

His scorn of a multi-ethnic Italy draws an unspoken distinction between diversity which is "acceptable" and diversity which is not.

The German speaking communities of Trentino/Alto Adige, Aosta valley and elsewhere that hold to their traditional heritage bring a multicultural flavor to Italian life, but you don't hear Berlusconi making noises about this. He and his political allies have a problem with too many Africans, too many gypsies, too many Muslims. On the part of some with an anti-immigrant platform these prejudices reflect xenophobic priorities... or more bluntly, racism.

Berlusconi's remarks drew a sharp reaction. Center-left leader Dario Franceschini said "It's not for me or Berlusconi or anyone else to decide, for this will be the century of multi-ethnic societies... France, Great Britain and Germany are European nations with far more immigrants than us but they've worked for integration."

The premier's comments were also criticized by Leoluca Orlando of the Italy of Values party who said Berlusconi's government risked returning "to the days of Nazi fascism." Giovanna Melandri of the Democratic Party said it wanted "a country in which color of skin, race and religion do not count."

Xenophobic attitudes in Italy are unfortunately quite common. Having a gaffe-prone joker at the helm distracts from the seriousness of this problem. When the Northern League's Matteo Salvini came out recently and proposed segregated seating on local public transport in Milan, Berlusconi refused to condemn his comments, passing off Salvini's remarks as just "a quip"... "a provocation."

There are other examples of the trend toward intolerance in Italy... here and here.

Guardian article here.