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Perceptions on Difference in Italy: Local Scholars and Activists Give Their Take

April 30, 2019

NYU Florence faculty Angelica Pesarini introduces A Conversation on Immigration in Italy


This semester, NYU Florence hosted a Dialogue on the climate of Immigration here in Italy, more specifically how the new Salvini Decree has altered the lives of many refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers. Angelica Pesarini, who teaches Black Italia and History of Immigration here at NYU Florence, moderated the discussion between activists and scholars who are involved in bettering the lives of many people and families that have been persecuted by these restrictive laws. I received the chance to interview Dr. Caterina Guidi who is a research fellow at the European University Institute, and a local human rights activist that works to help many migrants find stability and security, as well as Sonila Tafili, who has a migrant background and is a representative for IParticipate.  Tafili works with other young migrants and so-called “second generation Italians” who are continuing to fight for the citizenship that they deserve here in Italy.  



Professor Angelica Pesarini received her Ph.D in sociology from the University of Leeds, and one of her main practices is on identity construction in colonial/postcolonial Italy. Below is a message from Professor Angelica Pesarini, where she discusses the new Immigration reform established by Matteo Salvini, and why this has created a much more repressive Italy. Professor Pesarini also introduces the panelists involved in the talk, and the importance of first hand story-telling by those directly affected by these discriminatory policies.   


Angelica Pesarini: 



"Everyday through breaking news, newspaper articles, TV debates and so on, we are regularly reminded of the so-called “refugee crises” and the “dangerous” presence of immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees in Italy. This, along with immigration, has been one of the most discussed themes characterizing the last electoral campaign, ending with a unique situation in Europe: an Italian government formed by two populist parties. One of the most urgent reforms promoted by the new Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini, leader of The League, is a new decree on “Security and Immigration”. This was introduced in October and converted into Law in December 2018. The new decree, also known as the Salvini Decree, restricts asylum rights in Italy, boosts funding for police operations, and includes a provision that allows for the revocation of Italian citizenship from foreigners who pose a security threat. 



When I was asked by NYU Florence to organize an LPD dialogue on Immigration, my idea was clear from the very beginning: I wanted to have a panel of experts, activists and refugees illustrating and discussing the implications of the Decree on those directly affected by it. What was crucial to me was having people telling their story rather than having stories told about people. That’s why, along with the immigration law expert, Mario Savino, and the researcher and activist Caterina Francesca Guidi, I was very pleased to have on stage Sonila Tafili, a young Albanian woman who migrated to Italy 13 years ago. Despite still waiting for her Italian citizenship, Sonila has been very active among young people with a migration background by developing practices of active citizenship and creating with other second generation immigrants an association called IParticipate. I believe the presence of activists is an essential voice within this debate, therefore, it was very important to hear the voice of Silvia Privitera, a volunteer for Refugees Welcome, an NGO that helps refugees and asylum seekers finding a host family in Italy. And, finally, I thought it would have been incredibly problematic having a debate on the ways the Salvini Decree is changing life opportunities for thousands of people without having refugees themselves being on stage, explaining what it feels experiencing the consequences of these politics on their own skin. Therefore the testimony of Ousmane B. a 19 year old refugee from West Africa, was probably the key voice of this event." 





The Salvini Decree has negatively affected the lives of thousands, and yet this does not seem to be consistently acknowledged by many Italians. Below, Dr. Caterina Guidi and Sonila Tafili give their thoughts on the attitudes and perceptions of many Italians on the issue of immigration at the national and local level.  They expand on why a change in mindsets is crucial in order for refugees to find reliable protection and receive equal human rights, and in order for a more all-embracing, conscious Italy to exist.


Dr. Caterina Guidi: 



"Over the last few years, the general attitude towards immigration has worsened in Italy, especially in Florence.  Florence has seen multiple crimes committed against migrants, from the 2011 shootings in Piazza Dalmazia, to the Idy Diene assassination on March 5, 2018, the day after the national elections. Migrants have been targeted by the increasing climate of racism, especially in the wake of recent changes in national law - the Minniti-Orlando (2017) and Salvini (2018) decrees - and local regulations recently issued by the Florentine Prefecture. However, it is worth mentioning that the city has  a multifaceted activism and volunteering world - from NGOs to Catholic organizations, from far-left to spontaneous initiatives - with the explicit aim of supporting the migrant presence and their integration within the city.



It is vital for residents, whether they are citizens or non-citizens, to deconstruct stereotypes while depicting the everyday reality of migrants, who are - FIRST OF ALL - women and men.  Advocating for a certain mindset is key to deconstructing the negative stereotypes surrounding immigrants. This mindset must reiterate that we are all human beings, and all of us deserve to be treated as such, and this means people must begin to perceive each other with compassion, without the judgments that so many begin to construct. So acknowledging the fact that discrimination exists is key  to overcoming the construction of any kind of labels: from gender to nationality, socio economic status, etc.."


"The real question for the present and future is the following: what kind of Europe do we want to see in a hundred years?  You cannot stop human beings from seeking a better life. Nowadays in Italy, one of the main gateways to Europe, the country is acting as a fortress pushing back people in need by hindering their freedom of navigation.  As a result of this, many migrants end up suffering unspeakable conditions in other countries’ prisons. Italy is also ignoring the concerns being raised by the European Union. So, in my opinion, spreading awareness is key to building a better European and global future."



Sonila Tafili: 



"I think when we talk about attitude, we must make a comparison with other Italian cities, and it’s important to understand what the unit of measurement is. From an immigrant's point of view, the episodes of violence and level of intolerance are the most visible. It is important to take  all perspectives into consideration. I think that there is tolerance in Florence but there's also a need for right-wing movements to be monitored and to create more awareness. It's difficult to express an opinion based on an impression. There's a lot of local political ambiguity in Florence and you never know what's coming next and it's also difficult in the current political climate to understand the separating line between right and center-left parties. Florence is going to have local elections in a few months so our perceptions of the attitude towards immigration will depend a lot on that.


My association works with young people from migrant backgrounds, school children, and university students of all ages. The fundamental rights we are fighting for include access to education, higher education, and career training. This is impossible to achieve if you don’t overcome and fight against national legal barriers that limit the life and opportunities of young people. I am referring to  citizenship for those who are born in Italy (ius soli) and cultural rights (ius culturae) for those who grow up in this country and achieve education. There are barriers similar to these within  EU institutions that need to be addressed at the local level.


I think the goal for everyone today in the era of mobility is global education. We must educate young individuals everywhere on global values and a sense of responsibility on the environment, human rights, climate change etc.. Even though we respect the city we are operating in, and the countries of origin that we cooperate with, we must emphasize that working at the local level is not enough. Our first most important goal is to achieve a widespread consciousness."




The dialogue focused on the legal consequences of the Salvini decree, yet a large portion of the issue deals with negative stereotypes projected upon migrants by much of Europe. It is the work of activists and scholars on the local level that initiates a newfound cognizance, a reminder that we are all human.  






Anna Brown: I am a sophomore at NYU, and I am in the Gallatin school of individualized study. I am concentrating on anthropology, specifically Black Studies, specifically on how fashion and visual art is influenced by black culture. In my free time I enjoy writing, as I am a part of a fashion and culture magazine back in New York, taking film photos, and going to concerts. I volunteer for La Pietra Dialogues here in Florence, working on promoting La Pietra Dialogues through journalism and communications projects.



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