Why has this Italian politician’s neighbourly photo prompted such a furious backlash?

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

By Nando Sigona, University of Birmingham

Italy has been experiencing a resurgence of xenophobia recently. Migrants and Roma have been violently attacked by gangs, and people claiming to be “ordinary citizens” have organised marches in racially mixed neighbourhoods to stir up unrest.

Against this backdrop, Enrico Rossi, the left-leaning president of Tuscany, has turned what appears to be a rather mundane photograph into a bold political statement.

In the photo, Rossi stands flanked by a family of men, women and children. It’s a Sunday afternoon in Florence. “Let me introduce my neighbours” reads the description posted on Facebook. His neighbours are Romanian Roma.

Enrico Rossi, president of Tuscany, and his neighbours, 2014

Enrico Rossi, president of Tuscany, and his neighbours, 2014

Tense times

The picture was taken just a few weeks after Matteo Salvini, the new leader of the anti-immigration, anti-EU Northern League, paid a controversial visit to a Roma camp in Bologna to see how “tax money was spent”.

Salvini has made regular verbal attacks on Roma and migrants, a core part of his party’s attempt to rebrand itself as Italy’s answer to the French Front National. The steady rise in his approval rating would suggest that it’s working.

Meanwhile, the right is campaigning against Roma and new migrants at a local level too. In Rome, a crazy-train coalition of right-wing extremists, centre-right politicians and members of the mayor’s own Democratic Party is using immigration to fuel public anxieties in an attempt to force the mayor Ignazio Marino to resign.

But the animosity doesn’t stop there. Some of the same people who’ve been at the forefront of campaigns against undocumented migrants and Roma have now been accused of making money out of them as part of a sprawling inquiry into corruption in Rome.

The inquiry has exposed a network involving high-profile officials and mafia. They are suspected of bribery, extortion and corruption. So far 37 people have been arrested and 100 others investigated. The charges include making millions of euros by taking money meant to help support Roma and migrants. Officials have even been caught bragging about how exploiting migrants and Roma is more profitable than the drug trade.

Everybody needs good neighbours

Given all this tension, it is perhaps not surprising that Rossi’s neighbourly photo went viral. The picture attracted more than 6,000 Facebook comments, including from Salvini himself. Most were negative; many were violent and openly racist. (That said, there were 5,000 likes as well.)

Various accusations were levelled at the president in the comments. Many fell back on stereotypes about Roma: why, they asked, was the head of the region hanging out with foreigners, benefit scroungers, parasites, criminals? Why wasn’t he standing up for law-abiding taxpayers?

No matter if this Roma family includes children regularly attending a local school, and adults who work and have no criminal record; the people in the photo are not accepted as neighbours – they are dehumanised, and their real biographies trampled.

It is admirable that Rossi has held firm on his position despite the storm around the photo – even senior members of his party have voiced disapproval. He’s replied to a number of the comments made about the photo on Facebook. With just a few months to go before a regional election, it’s certainly bold to cause such a stir.

Given the current climate in Italy, his decision to fight this particular battle could affect his political career and electoral future – but at least for now, he doesn’t seem to care. One thing is certain: this particular photo will be plastered on leaflets and billboards everywhere as the next election approaches.

The Conversation

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My (Roma) neighbours and me, the President

by Nando Sigona

Enrico Rossi, president of Tuscany, and his neighbours, 2014

Enrico Rossi, president of Tuscany, and his neighbours, 2014

In the last weeks, Italy has witnessed a spiralling resurgence of xenophobia, with migrants being violently attacked by gangs of far right activists and marches against immigrants organised in highly diverse, and often deprived, neighbourhoods by alleged ‘ordinary’ citizens. The long list of episodes which are contributing to create a toxic climate and a widespread sentiment of moral panic, includes a visit by the media-savvy new leader of the Northern League, Matteo Salvini, to a Roma encampment just before the regional election in Emilia Romagna that provoked a violent response from anti-fascist and anti-racist activists and hours of media coverage for Salvini; and a 500 people-strong sit-in organised by the right wing student organisation Blocco Studentesco in front of a Roma camp in via Cesare Lombroso in Rome to protest against the alleged misbehaving of some Roma against a local school. Demonstrators were accused of intimidating young Roma students who were on their way to school.

What the Roma rights NGO OsservAzione has termed the ‘Salvini method’- the deliberate targeting of highly stigmatised and voiceless communities to grab media attention and feeds the induced moral panic with banal but highly effective sound bites – is spreading rapidly across Italy. Hardly a year from the Lampedusa tragedy, the solidarity that had sustained the response of the Italian authority through Mare Nostrum operation is vanished, and new migrants and Roma are made scapegoats for a society undergoing a prolonged period of economic stagnation and waking up from the promises of rapid transformation of the PM Matteo Renzi. While at the national level, the anti-immigration flag is carried by the Northern League engaged in a radical rebranding that would transform it from a regional and secessionist party into the Italian version of Le Pen’s Front National, at the local level, in cities like Rome an odd coalition of right wing extremists, centre-right politicians and members of the mayor’s own party (PD) is using immigration and the Roma in particular to fuel public anxiety in the attempt to force the current mayor Ignazio Marino to resign.

In such a climate, it is therefore remarkable and noteworthy a photo posted on his facebook page by the president of Tuscany regional authority, Enrico Rossi. The photo portraits President Rossi with his neighbours, a family of Romanian Roma. The caption includes the name of each member of the family and nothing else. This was enough to provoke over 5,000 comments, mostly negative, if not violent and openly racist, as well as 4000 likes. The accusations against the president reflect closely the repertoire of stereotypes on Roma people, and while they vary they can broadly be summed up as ‘we are the good citizens (ie. tax payers, law abiding, white, native, hard workers) and instead you choose to side with them (ie. foreigners, benefit scroungers, non-white, thieves, parasites, criminals)’. And it doesn’t matter if the Roma family includes children attending school regularly, adults that work and pay tax and have no criminal record. The point is that the people in the photo are not accepted as neighbours; they are dehumanised and deprived of their individual stories. It is admirable that the president hold his position despite the storm generated by the photo – ‘a social media disaster’ according to one of his party mate – and has also responded to many of the comments to his post individually. Whether or not this decision is going to affect the political career and the electoral fortune of Mr Rossi in the medium-long term is too early to say, but it is likely that we will see the photo reappear on billboards before the next election.

King Nigel’s Speech: recasting ‘us’ and ‘them’

[Article published in OpenDemocracy, 13 May 2013)

In the UK political debate, boundaries are being blurred between the two hot topics on the political agenda: migration and the EU. This should be a wake-up call for the 2.7 million European immigrants living and working in the UK, says Nando Sigona.

Nigel Farage, UKIP leader

Nigel Farage, UKIP leader

Written by the government and delivered by the reigning monarch, the Queen’s speech sets out the legislative agenda for the year aheadAs expected, David Cameron, the UK Conservative Prime Minister and his coalition government have used this year’s Queen’s speech to offer a quick if rather panicked response to the recent electoral success of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) which gained 139 council seats in the 2013 local elections.

The speech places immigration firmly at the centre of the political agenda, as if the crisis of the banking system and a poorly performing economy didn’t exist or could be attributed through some rather obscure association to the presence of non-British residents. As Alex Andreou has explained in a comment in the New Statesman, Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, ‘has merely acted as the catalyst, by stepping into an emotional vacuum left by mainstream parties’, providing a comforting but ultimately useless solution to the current crisis at a time when mainstream parties are all perceived as distant, elitist and impermeable to what is happening outside Westminster. What the Queen’s speech did is to legitimate the anti-immigration and anti-EU rhetoric of UKIP as a solution to the crisis, something that the Conservative Party right-wing had failed to achieve until now.

Besides the headline-grabbing statements against illegal migrants, speeding deportation for foreign-born criminals and fighting alleged abuses of the welfare system, the Queen’s speech is underpinned by a wider vision which at the core criminalises migrants and migration to an extent we hadn’t previously observed in recent mainstream British politics. This criminalisation also extends to EU citizens, until recently kept relatively protected from anti-immigration campaigners and politicians. This is with the noticeable exception of Romanians and Bulgarians, whose possible arrival following the lifting of the existing restrictions on access to the job market and welfare system in early 2014 is generating waves of moral panic.

By associating intra-EU mobility more closely to immigration, the Queen’s speech blurs the boundaries between the two hot topics on the political agenda: migration and the EU, and turns the moral panic generated by the arrival and settlement of Romanians and Bulgarians, the ‘new’ Europeans to paraphraseformer US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, into yet another argument in support of Eurosceptic politics.

As a researcher working on migration, asylum and minority rights for over a decade, I am familiar with the rising criminalisation of asylum seekers in the UK: the use of enforced destitution, dispersal and detention to deter new arrivals and force those no longer entitled to stay to leave the country. Furthermore, I have documented the plight of undocumented children and young people kept in legal limbo, non-deportable and yet excluded from formal citizenship.

As a foreigner myself, an EU citizen who has lived in the UK for the last 12 years, I feel increasingly uncomfortable with the tone and contents of the debate on immigration. I feel more and more part of the population I study, experiencing personally some of the feelings and anxieties that I am used to hearing from the individuals I interview.

Of course, this is not to say that as an Italian I go through the same ordeal as, for example, that of someone seeking asylum in the UK. But I can certainly say that over the last year or so I have felt increasingly more like an immigrant to whom the right to reside in the UK is granted from above (and can be withdrawn if needs be for electoral considerations) than an EU citizen, that is, part of a pan-European political community founded on the principles of freedom of movement and equality among its citizens.

With this realisation came a renewed sense of empathy for those non-EU migrants who on a daily basis have to negotiate or subject key decisions in their personal life to a faceless bureaucrat somewhere in Croydon (i.e. the UK Border Agency’s HQ) who can decide if a marriage is legitimate, if one can go to a funeral back home, or if a non-British father can be with his British partner at the birth of their child in London. For Romanian and Bulgarian migrants the boundary between being an immigrant and an EU citizen has already been blurred for a while, long before the so-called ‘old’ Europeans.

According to the Oxford-based Migration Observatory, data from the 2011 Census suggest that 2.7 million residents of England and Wales were born in other EU countries. About 1.1 million of those (41%) were born in countries which joined the EU in 2004 (Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia) or afterwards (Bulgaria and Romania). The majority of the EU citizens are therefore people like me (and it feels awkward to talk of myself in terms of my nationality): Italians, Germans, Spaniards, French, Greeks etc.

Until recently, one wouldn’t have heard politicians talk about ‘us’ in the same breath with the ‘other’ foreigners, but the economic crisis and a government in search of scapegoats are changing the terms of the debate. This is a wake-up call for many who felt that the tough talk on immigration was never about them, that somehow they were bullet-proofed from attacks by right-wingers and alike. In other words this is a wake-up call for a largely politically invisible population, with no right to vote at general elections, no spokespersons or campaign organisations, but also with rather powerful states behind them and relatively good social positions in British society.

We may realise soon that all mainstream political parties, faced with the challenge of UKIP, may be prepared to sacrifice us for the sake of electoral victory. For if the Queen’s speech marks a further shift towards the right of the political spectrum of the political debate on immigration, the Labour opposition demonstrates once again little will to fight the battle for immigrants and immigrants’ rights, as well as for the EU and EU citizens. The shadow minister Yvette Cooper more often than not attacks the government for not being able to control immigration and borders, as confirmed recently in a major speech at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). It’s hard to see how these tactical responses may lead to a different strategy and new ways of thinking on migration.

The Queen’s speech has thus contributed to redrawing the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and for some of us this came as a realisation that the position we thought to occupy in British society as fellow EU citizens is gradually being eroded by a dangerous combination of anti-foreigner and anti-EU sentiments. This is happening without much opposition. Times of crisis also bring new opportunities. New spaces for political mobilisation may yet open up and lead to the emergence of new political subjects in British politics: ‘old’ and ‘new’ Europeans fighting back.