Posted on September 29, 2006

Ring Of Steel Divides Padua

Christian Fraser, BBC News, September 28, 2006

The Anelli estate in Padua is a cluster of crumbling high-rise flats.

It was built in the 1980s to house the city’s considerable student population.

These days it is home to several hundred African immigrants.

It has a reputation for crime, drugs and prostitution, and is a constant source of angry complaints from local Italian residents.

This summer, after riots between opposing gangs, the left-leaning mayor of Padua took a drastic decision to seal off the estate — with a metal wall.

It is 85m (290ft) long, 3m (10ft) high and it stretches along one side of the estate.

“It’s not an instrument of segregation,” said Mayor Flavio Zanonato.

“We just want to limit the activity of the drug pushers here. This isn’t a wall in Palestine. It’s just something that’s harder for drug dealers to jump over.”

Not a solution

But those who live behind the wall say they feel like they have been imprisoned.

“The people on the other side of this wall don’t want to know the people in here,” said Ibude Agboneta , a Nigerian immigrant.

“They built this wall to hide the problems. But they will not solve the problems in this city by blocking them out.”

The fence has been dubbed Padua’s Berlin Wall.

An exaggeration — but it is a wall and it is standing between communities.

Perhaps it is a symbol of the problems Italy is facing with integration.

The estate is neither pretty nor comfortable. Most flats have no heating. Graffiti has been sprayed on walls and water trickles down the staircases.

Gang violence

There are racial tensions here. Fights between Christian and Muslim gangs are common. Most of it is over drugs.

The riots in July were so bad that some local residents demanded the wall be built around the entire estate.

There is only one way into the complex, through a police checkpoint.

Uniformed officers now vet everyone coming and going.

The wall has limited the drug-dealing. In fact some of the inhabitants welcome the changes it has brought.

“It is wonderful,” said Iroh. “This way drug dealers cannot come and go all the time, there is more control.”

But Iroh also accuses the police of “not doing enough to protect those who are not part of the drug-trafficking.”

There are young families trapped inside the estate. Families that are frightened, intimidated and stigmatised.

“I lived here with my wife and two children for a year,” says Ibude.

“I was terrified for them. It was no place for children to be. There were drug dealers prowling the estate, addicts sleeping in the corridors.

“We shared one bedroom with no windows and we paid 600 euros (£400) a month.

“There is terrible poverty in here — and it’s hard to escape. This estate breeds crime!”

Immigration debate

Three of the six buildings were evacuated in 2005, and more than 300 people relocated by the local administration. The remaining three blocks will be closed next year.

“The idea,” said Daniela Ruffini, head of Padua’s immigration and housing committee, “is to integrate the immigrant families and break down the barriers.”

But the truth, say some, is that the authorities cannot find enough landlords prepared to take them.

There are often bitter complaints when Africans move into a predominantly Italian neighbourhood and the council has to guarantee the rent.

Immigration is a touchy issue in the Veneto region, which is one of the main electoral strongholds of the anti-immigration Northern League party.

“Some people like to forget what jobs these immigrants are doing in our community,” said Daniela.

“They work in our factories, they build our houses, and they nurse our old people. They do many of the jobs Italians don’t want to do.

“They are essential to preserving our standard of living — but at night when the work is finished there are some people in this city who would prefer to forget they are here. “

Padua has a population of 205,000. The province has a migrant population of 70,000.

According to the local authority, one in three of the new-borns in the city is now of foreign origin.

Most find work in local factories. But the pay is poor.

The current law demands migrants have a job contract when they arrive, and it restricts their stay to two years.

Critics say it is a law on control and exploitation of the workforce, not on the integration of people who come to Italy to work.

“I sometimes work 22-hour days,” says Ibudi, a cleaner.

“But I know I don’t get the same pay as the Italians I work with. I don’t get holiday pay or any benefits.

“If you obey the rules in this country and you don’t ask too many questions, you can stay. But if you challenge your boss and ask why you get paid less than the Italians you will be unemployed in an instant!”