Rising xenophobia in Sicily at the ‘boat people’

Italians grow weary of asylum seekers amid the steady flow of migrants and the country’s economic woes.

Italy migrants
Merchants at Catania market are weary of the influx of migrants [Rosie Scammell/Al Jazeera]

Catania, Italy At a bustling market in Catania, as people went about their morning shopping, Giuseppe Sapienza ran his juice stand and reflected on the latest wave of boat migrants to reach the Sicilian city.

“Too many people are arriving and it’s a problem, for Sicily and the whole of Italy.”

Across Catania authorities prepared for another day of hundreds of migrants coming ashore. More than 200,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean to Italy since the start of 2014, according to the Italian navy, putting an increasing burden on the state and society as a whole. 

Selling cups of freshly squeezed juice, Sapienza commented on the crisis unfolding in his country.

“The immigration centres are full. I’m sorry in the human sense, but it’s a delicate situation in Italy. I hope the government does something,” he said. 

Sapienza’s colleague was less forgiving, accusing the migrants of stealing from the locals. “It hasn’t happened to me, but I’ve heard it said that they move around in groups and rob people,” the merchant said.

For five months, we didn't have anything to do. They didn't give us clothes or shoes, didn't take us to hospital if we got sick.

by Suleiman Usuman, migrant

Funding migrants

The suspicion of migrants who are fleeing both conflict and poverty is fuelled by Italy’s increasingly popular far-right movements.

Leading the charge is Matteo Salvini, secretary of the Northern League party, who frequently decries the “invasion” of Italy.

While Salvini’s right-wing rhetoric has not garnered universal support – protesters across Italy pelted him with eggs and tomatoes during a recent election campaign – his focus on financial resources has struck a chord among many.

For a year, Italy spent nearly 9 million euros ($9.83m) a month on its Mare Nostrum operation, a sea rescue mission that came to an end in October amid increasing political pressure.

The EU’s subsequent sea operation, Triton, has also proven woefully inadequate for the task and as a result Italian authorities continue to come to the aid of boat migrants.

But it is the funds spent on migrants once they arrive in Italy that creates the most ire, as the government is legally obliged to house asylum seekers while their applications are processed.

Corrupt contractors are known to have infiltrated the system, with one alleged Rome crime boss overheard saying he earned more from migrants than from drug trafficking.

Even those legitimately hosting new arrivals have come under fire, as the government has begun paying hoteliers about 30 euros ($33) a day for each migrant they host.

Abuse allegations

Yet despite this perception that the migrants are living a life of luxury at taxpayers’ expense, as touted by some, one Nigerian teen, Suleiman Usuman, told a different story.

He said he faced an unbearable wait at a migrant centre in Sicily. “For five months, we didn’t have anything to do. They didn’t give us clothes or shoes, didn’t take us to hospital if we got sick,” Usuman told.

Suleiman Usuman [Rosie Scammell/Al Jazeera]
Suleiman Usuman [Rosie Scammell/Al Jazeera]

Usuman, 17, arrived in Italy a year ago. At the holding centre, as he became frustrated with living in limbo for months, he threatened to smash windows if not taken to have his documents processed.

What happened after did not go as Usuman had imagined.

A centre employee woke him that night, took him away in a car to another location where he was attacked and beaten. The incident prompted a police investigation that has stalled his asylum claim.

“Without documents you are nothing. You can’t work, you can’t go anywhere,” Usuman said.

Although Usuman’s application has been further delayed by the police case, his earlier lengthy wait is a symptom of Italy’s slow and overburdened asylum system.

A system overwhelmed

While many migrants who land on Italian shores evade authorities in order to continue their journey to other European countries, a total of 64,625 people did apply for asylum in the country in 2014, according to Eurostat, the EU’s statistics agency.

The same year, 35,180 applicants received decisions on their status, creating a bureaucratic backlog.

Last May, there were 19,730 people awaiting a decision on their asylum application, a figure which by this February had more than doubled to 47,045.

The pressure is likely to only increase as more migrants take the risky sea journey.

With little room left for new arrivals in Italy’s impoverished south, the government has started to transfer migrants to regions across the country. The move has been met with fierce resistance, with one regional leader, Augusto Rollandin, president of the mountainous Valle d’Aosta region, outright refusing to accept any more migrants.

Protesters and riot police clash in central Rome [EPA]
Protesters and riot police clash in central Rome [EPA]

Earlier this month Rollandin said it is “absolutely impossible” to meet the government’s demands. Nestled on the border with France and Switzerland, the region is currently hosting 62 migrants.

No regional representative was available to discuss with Al Jazeera the reasoning behind the rejection. Rollandin has previously stated it was about the inability of the authorities to provide migrants with a dignified and sustainable stay.

Growing hostility

The pressure has also been felt in Rome. Locals in November forced migrants out of their neighbourhood by attacking a migrant centre.

The people living in the Top Sapienza centre were moved out of the neighbourhood after consecutive nights of clashes between riot police and angry protesters, who threw stones at the building and set bins ablaze.

Such anti-immigrant sentiment marks a significant shift in attitudes towards outsiders, according to Hussain Mazhar, who moved to Rome from Pakistan in 1989.

Now living in Catania, selling jewellery to passers-by, Mazhar said he is ready to leave despite the fact he has the right to stay permanently.

“There are more and more problems in Italy. There used to be people walking around in Prada and Gucci, not any more,” he said, suggesting hostility towards migrants had increased in part because of the economic crisis.

Hussain Mazhar [Rosie Scammell/Al Jazeera]
Hussain Mazhar [Rosie Scammell/Al Jazeera]

Usuman confirmed this sentiment, saying he had experienced racism during his one year stay in the city, although he remains optimistic about starting a new life elsewhere in the country.

“I’m thinking about leaving Sicily. If I get transferred to Rome or Milan, I will be happy. If I have a nice job I’ll stay in Italy,” Usuman said.

But like many locals living on the edge of the Mediterranean, Mazhar insisted the burden of migrants had become too great to bear.

“Enough!” Mazhar said. “It’s not just Sicily, but it’s enough for Italy.”

Source: Al Jazeera