- - Wednesday, December 24, 2014

BENEVENTO, Italy — In this south central Italian town, Nigerians and Romanians immigrants beg for money in front of supermarkets and others work as prostitutes near the train station.

This is a phenomena not seen in this small city of about 60,000 one hour from Naples until a few months ago. Here, as in other parts of Italy, scenes like this reinforce stereotypes about foreigners and fuel resentment against them.

“It is a recent trend,” said Giuliana Pilla, 33, a postal worker commuting every day to Naples. “Close-minded Italians think that every immigrant does the same thing.”

As Italy has seen a sharp spike in immigration, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi came under increasing pressure to do something, anything, to scale back the tide. That includes paring down “Mare Nostrum,” a military operation that rescues illegal immigrants arriving from North Africa via a perilous boat journey on the Mediterranean Sea.

Italy is not able to absorb this amount of migration,” said Vincenzo Gibiino, a lawmaker with the main conservative party in parliament, Forza Italia. “We don’t obtain any significant result through the mission — we could spend that money in other ways.”

Launched in the wake of a mass drowning that killed 366 immigrants when their ship sank off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa last year, the mission named after the Latin phrase “Our Sea” has saved around 100,000 lives at a cost of cost $11.6 million.

With a stagnant economy and weak job market, Italy requested the European Union to contribute funding to the rescue mission and help with the influx. EU’s border control agency, Frontex, is creating a new operation, Triton, to help police the sea south of the coast of Sicily and Calabria, southern Italy.

“Mare Nostrum won’t coexist with Triton, it will end,” Interior Minister Angelino Alfano told parliament in October. “Italy will continue the search and rescue operations, as required by the International laws.”

But some fear Frontex, which coordinates border policies among the EU’s 28 member countries, won’t have the resources to save immigrants whose boats can’t make the 250-mile trip from Libya to Lampedusa.

“The policy will change to focus more attention on security,” said Lampedusa Deputy Mayor Damiano Sferlazzo, who has seen first-hand how immigrants risk their lives to seek asylum from civil war and repression. “If the security policy prevails over the rescue mission in the sea, there will be repercussions.”

The influx of immigrants into Italy spiked in June and July, reaching almost 47,000. Around 90 percent came from Libya, with the rest from Egypt and Tunisia. That’s more than the total of 43,000 immigrants who came to Italy for all of 2013, according to the Leone Moressa Foundation, a think tank in Venice.

Many of the immigrants landing in Italy want to continue on to Germany and other European countries. But under EU rules, they must remain in Italy to receive asylum or immigrations status before moving elsewhere on the continent.

The flood has stirred anti-immigration sentiment throughout the country, especially as the country’s economy in August officially lapsed into its third recession since 2008.

The anti-immigration Northern League movement, calling the immigration wave an “invasion,” organized demonstrations in its political heartland — Milan — in October. The League plays on a common perception among northern Italians that their hard work financially supports the less productive southern portion of the peninsula which sees the highest immigration.

“Uncontrolled immigration proves to be disastrous,” said Northern League leader Matteo Salvini at anti-immigrants demonstration in Milan Oct 18. “Northern League mayors are passing rules to stop the uncontrolled residence of the immigrants. One of the latest doesn’t allow immigrants to stay without a valid medical certificate of good health.”

Political shift

A new poll this month found that more than a third of all Italians, including growing numbers in the country’s south, are prepared to vote for the Northern League, with resentment on the immigration issue seen as a key pillar of the party’s success. Mr. Salvini this month launched an explicit campaign to boost the party’s support in the south.

Comedian Beppe Grillo, founder of the Five Star Movement — a pro-environment, anti-EU political party — repeatedly has mocked the country’s permissive attitude toward foreigners. Recently, Italian news reports said Italian police working around illegal immigrants contracted tuberculosis.

“We want to reimport tuberculosis,” he said. “Let’s reimport it. The grotesque situation is that African countries close their borders to contain Ebola from spreading while we open ours wide without any medical check on who arrives and who knows from where.”

Even legal immigrants are nervous about the massive increase in immigrants.

“From a certain point of view, they are my brothers,” said Manuel Goetsa, a 37-year-old from Mozambique who recently became an Italian citizen after living in the country for 14 years. “From another view, though, I don’t know whether I can be with them or against them. On TV, they seem to be everywhere.”

Complicating the political equation here are new government reports that the country’s Mafia networks are among the biggest winners from the unchecked flow of immigrants. The Italian news agency ANSA reported this month that a major Roman Mafia network brings in most of its revenues by siphoning off public works and welfare funds meant for Italy’s Roma and immigrant populations.

Meanwhile, nonprofit and Catholic organizations say they are overwhelmed. They have set aside 16,000 beds for refugees and say they need more.

“This number is not enough,” said Giorgio Goglia, who runs a reception facility that opened in January near Avellino, near Naples. He estimated that 21,000 would be necessary over the next few years.

Mr. Goglia’s facility is part of System of Protection for Asylum Seekers and Refugees, a state-funded network of local authorities and organizations dedicated also to convincing Italians to welcome the immigrants.

“Teaching integration to the local population is difficult,” he said. “Locals think that immigrants steal jobs or economic resources that could be used for Italians.”

The economic crisis in Europe hasn’t made life easy for immigrants, either. Italy’s unemployment rate tops 12 percent, according to the Italian Nationl Institute of Statistics. But for immigrants unemployment runs at more than 17 percent.

“When I arrived, Italy was a dream,” said Mr. Goetsa, who is self-employed and works in sales. “Since the economic crisis, I have become a bit discouraged [as sales dropped]. There are hurdles that make you thinking about other solutions, going somewhere else in Europe or back to Mozambique.”

Mr. Goetsa’s wife, Esperanca Chihoze, 32, a hairdresser, said that southern Italians are especially reluctant to intermix with immigrants, and that most believe immigrants are suited only to manual or illegal jobs.

“At the beginning Italians do not give you the homey feeling,” she said. “It is not easy to integrate. Still now it happens that clients ignore me, even if I have my uniform on at work — they go to the white person.”

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