Migrants In Milan

Life’s getting tougher for...

Milan migrants keep a careful watch for officials as they offer their illegal goods | Photo: Christian Cummins

The Africans were perched on the low brick walls of a bridge over the moat of Sforzesco Castle with dozens of bags laid out on rugs. They whispered to the tourists coming out over the drawbridge of the red fortress into the blinding brightness of Sempione Park.

One of the bag-sellers, who introduced himself as Ahmadou*, sidled up to me as I was taking a photo.

“Good morning, my friend,” he said, revealing a very wide smile and very yellow walls of plaque on his teeth. I told him that I was not in my market for a new bag right at the moment. No, nor for my wife nor my girlfriend. No, nor my mum. I agreed that my sister would indeed like one, but remained adamant that she wasn’t getting one today. And no, I didn’t doubt the quality of the bag nor my good fortune at being confronted with such a great deal.

I know people find this banter very tiresome, but I rather enjoy it. We chatted about Senegal and football, and I was finally agreeing to at least buy a bracelet that would guarantee me of a long life at the bargain price of one euro (wink) when one of the Africans put his fingers to his mouth and let out a shrill whistle. It was like the warning scream of the watchman marmot in the mountains.

In this case the eagle was a grey car was rolling through the courtyard of the castle complex towards the gate. The bag-sellers immediately recognized advancing officialdom and suddenly Ahmadou was rolling up the rug to make a sort of lumpy sausage with the bags in the middle. All the Africans were moving backwards now, arms full, backs bent, eyes never off the grey car.

They were saved by the thicket of tourists in the narrow gateway, and the car had no chance of reaching the bag-sellers. By the time the driver had crossed the moat, the Africans were already across the gravel forecourt and into the trees of the park. Its prey gone, the car sped threateningly across the short space of open gravel before coming to a skidding halt – like a terrier barking indignantly at a bird after it has already flown away.

I took a short walk in the park, among exploding alleyways of color, and then stopped for a coffee. When I got back to the moat, Ahmadou was back with his bags and his yellow smile. So I got my life-advancing bracelet after all.

Later when I showed my Italian friend my rainbow-colored thread bracelet he berated me gently for encouraging “organized begging.” For those who are accosted everyday en route to work, the “extracomunitari” are understandably often seen as a pest. But if you spend a few minutes thinking about why, and how many of them traveled to Europe, it’s hard to say no, isn’t it?

Ahmadou laughed off the cat and mouse game with the police as a daily theatre he had to put up with. But times are rapidly getting tougher for Italy’s estimated half million population of illegal immigrants.

Last year, 69% of Italians said they saw restricting immigration as a top priority for their country, and politicians are competing with each other in a battle to sound tough on the issue. It’s not easy to dismiss this as mere xenophobia; it’s also about numbers.

In 2008, nearly 37,000 immigrants arrived on the shores of Italy and many Italian voters feel under siege.

In this climate of fear strict new anti-immigration laws were able to pass through parliament in July last year. Illegal immigrants are now liable to pay a fine of €10,000 and can be detained by the authorities for up to six months. People who knowingly house undocumented migrants can now face up to three years in prison. Every day police officers are seen entering cafés, targeting dark-skinned guests and demanding their papers.

Things have only got worse for migrants since January when violence erupted in Rosarno, a Calabrian honey-pot for seasonal migrants (many of them legal). It seems that two Africans were shot by white men with pellet guns. The migrants responded by smashing shop windows and burning cars. Right-wing vigilantes engaged the migrants in street battles and, in the end, 70 people were injured.

Though the majority of the victims were migrants, the official blame was put at their door. The Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, of the right-wing Northern League party, saw the solution to such tension in curbing “illegal immigration – which feeds criminal activities.”

But Maroni has also been forced to recognize the elephant in the room in the politics of migration – that the comfortable Italian way of life has become dependent on the often unglamorous hard work done by the legal and also illegal migrants. No migrants, no dolce vita.

A spokesman for the International Organization of Labour told Time magazine recently that “if all the migrants just stopped working now, the Italian system would just collapse.”

That sort of message doesn’t win votes at elections, yet the voters may have to accept that the face of Italy is changing. The chief of Milan’s police, quoted in the Austrian daily Kurier, says that the foreign population of the city has risen from 3,000 in 1980 to 400,000, or 30% of a population of just 1.3 million. This is only slightly higher than in Vienna, where 25% of the population is foreign born.

Now the bag-sellers like Ahmadou face ever more frequent crack-downs. You wonder whether the theatre outside the Sforzesco Castle isn’t aimed at showing the Milanese voters that the authorities are tackling the issue vigorously.

With this in mind, I asked Ahmadou how life in Italy was suiting him. His yellow smile managed the remarkable trick of being both wide and guarded at the same time. My one euro might have bought me a longer life, but it had not bought the right to ask personal questions:

“It’s just fine, my friend,” he answered. “You have yourself a nice day.”


*name changed

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