In Italy, Migrant Welcome Cools

Catarina Fernandes Martins, Christian Science Monitor,

Every weekday afternoon, lawyer Iacopo Maria Pitorri leaves his office for a few minutes to offer legal advice to a crowd of migrants waiting for him outside Rome’s Termini Station.

“My colleagues don’t want these people to come into the office so I come downstairs,” Mr. Pitorri says.

Not far away, in Piazza Venezia, a group of security guards is trying to prevent another illegal occupation of a building that the police had violently evicted at the end of August. “We’re getting rid of all the” Africans, one of them says, continuing on in insulting language that produce laughter from the others.

Around the square, Romans shudder when asked about migration. In the outskirts of Rome, at a makeshift camp that is home to hundreds of migrants and refugees, volunteer Adelaide Massimi reflects on the mood shift in Italian society regarding the migration issue.

“All the newspapers talk about now is Muslims raping women and children dying from malaria brought to Italy by African migrants. People are attacking Doctors without Borders on social media for helping migrants. Something is changing in Italy,” says Ms. Massimi.

Italian society has traditionally welcomed migrants, but the tide seems to be turning as Italians grow increasingly polarized on the issue. The public’s support for an open-door policy has dropped significantly in the past 12 months, and anti-immigrant parties won major gains in local elections this year. They seem set to repeat that performance in national elections in 2018.

As sympathy for migrants wears thin and the far-right gains ground, centrist political leaders have yielded to the increased pressure to take a tougher stance. Rome’s assistance to the Libyan coast guard, whose vessels return refugees to prisons where forced labor, torture, and rape are commonplace is part of that shift. Other efforts include pursuing administrative action against Italians who help illegal migrants and imposing a code of conduct on charities rescuing refugees in the Mediterranean Sea, making their mission more difficult.

“What’s surprising is that these new measures were put in place by a center-left government. There’s a perfect storm right now in Italy—the public debate stigmatizes migrants, political decisions are bad and left-wing leadership adopts right-wing populism,” says Grazia Naletto of Lunaria, a nonprofit organization that chronicles incidents of racism in Italy.

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