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Italy's Bad Economy Leaves Immigrants Vulnerable

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The Italian city of Florence prides itself on welcoming foreign migrants. But the killing of two Africans last month has raised new questions about racism in Italy.

With the economic crisis worsening, there are signs xenophobia could increase as Italians start to compete with immigrants for a slice of the shrinking economic pie.

On Dec. 13, a known right-wing extremist opened fire in two separate marketplaces, leaving two Senegalese dead and seriously injuring three others. The killer then shot himself.

That day, the San Lorenzo market was packed with people shopping for Florence's renowned leather goods.

Vendor Roberto Ciacci is still stunned by what happened.

"I'm anguished," he says. "This city has a strong progressive, anti-fascist legacy. I can't believe this could happen here."

The killings were carried out by a member of Casa Pound — a right-wing grouping named after the American poet Ezra Pound, known for his fascist sympathies and anti-Semitism.

Casa Pound leaders distanced themselves from the killer. But Saverio di Giulio says his group rejects the concept of immigrants' assimilation.

"We uphold the notion of Italian-ness — that spiritual and mystical union of our people that existed during Fascism," says di Giulio. "We are opposed to domination by the international financial system that wants to erase national identities."

Italians And Immigrants Feel The Pinch

Nigerian Udo Enwereuzor, who files reports to the European Union's Monitoring Center for Racism and Xenophobia, says the ideas of Casa Pound are gaining ground across the political spectrum.

"That part that criticizes big business, banks," he says, "has more chances of making headway, attracting people on the left today because of the hardship."

That hardship is beginning to affect Italians as well as foreign workers.

At a soup kitchen run by the Catholic charity Caritas, women recite the Hail Mary at the start of lunchtime. Most here are foreigners, but the number of Italians has grown 30 percent in the past year or so.

As more Italians become jobless and even homeless, Caritas officials say, tensions are growing.

Many Italians are seeking jobs in three areas long relegated only to foreigners — domestic help and care of the elderly, agriculture and construction.

Sociologist Emilio Santoro, who teaches at the University of Florence, says the majority of immigrants are paid one-third of what they should be getting by law, and they work very long hours.

"This is the problem because they find a market which is based on dumping, social dumping, then they have to accept the same salary as the foreign people," Santoro says.

The new job competition risks turning into a war pitting poor against poor.

It comes after a decade of escalating anti-immigrant statements by officials, especially members of the Northern League. One minister even suggested "immigrants should be shot in the boats bringing them to Italian shores."

Assane Kebe, a representative of Florence's Senegalese community, says the crisis has made the climate even worse.

"People are now blaming immigrants for the crisis," he says. "They say we take away jobs, housing and even slots in nurseries because we have too many children."

Immigrants now face an even worse prospect: Italian legislation — severely criticized by the EU — stipulates that foreigners without a job for six months must be expelled together with their entire families, even those who settled here decades ago.

Several hundred-thousand legal immigrants now risk losing their papers. The new government of Prime Minister Mario Monti wants to give them a reprieve and give them a year to find a new job. But the government faces strong opposition in Parliament from the Northern League and its conservative allies.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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