Romanian scandal exposes Italy's unease with immigration

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The wave of xenophobia that followed the death of an Italian woman highlights the unease many Italians feel about the transition of their country from a place people used to leave to seek a better future abroad, to a destination for immigrants trying to improve their lot.

28 December 2007

Rome (dpa) - Clad in a frilly 18th Century replica costume Iulia stands most of the day near some of Rome's most famous sites, the Colosseum or the Pantheon, handing out to tourists pamphlets promoting operetta shows.

That's her job despite the qualifications she has earned as a textile industry engineer.

A petite, 30-year-old brunette from the eastern Romanian city of Piatra Neamt, Iulia has been living for just over two years in Italy, a country, which she says for many Romanians of her generation symbolized an easy entry point into Western Europe and access to the economic possibilities lacking at home.

Some 560,000 Romanians are officially registered in Italy, but estimates say the number is closer to 1.5 million.

Surveys suggest that, like Iulia, many of the Romanian immigrants are highly educated although most of them are employed as manual labourers or domestic servants.

"We knew that if we wanted to go to Germany, France or England we would have needed proper work permits, but no one would ever check our documents in Italy," Iulia said, recalling the days when she first arrived to work as a baby-sitter for a family in Nemi, a small town south-east of Rome.

She initially entered the country on a visa that entitled her to a three-month long stay as a guest of the family. But she stayed on after the expiry date, working illegally as a baby-sitter or housekeeper, while returning briefly to Romania on three separate occasions to visit family there.

"Anyone could get on and off that bus, no questions were asked as long as you had the money to pay for the trip," she said of the three-day-long road journey from Rome to Piatra Neamt.

That was even before Romania became a European Union member, and before Iulia got the part-time but legal job she has now.

But it was also before the brutal rape and murder of a 47-year-old Italian woman allegedly at the hands of a Romanian man in early November shocked Italy.

Giovanna Reggiani, a naval officer's wife, was attacked shortly after she got off a train at a suburban Rome station and was declared brain dead by the time she was taken to hospital.

A Roma man of Romanian nationality and squatting at immigrant shacks near the station, was arrested hours later, his clothes stained with what investigators say is the victim's blood.

The killing prompted Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni to declare: "Rome was the world's safest city until Romania's entry into the EU" in January 2007.

Veltroni also cited figures indicating that 75 per cent of all arrests in the Italian capital over the last year involved Romanians.

A few days later it was the turn of Italy's Interior Minister Giuliano Amato, whose mild-mannered, bookish approach has earned him the nickname Dottor Sottile or Doctor Subtle.

"The in-flow of Romanians is very strong and many delinquents are part of it," said the interior minister who also suggested that the European Union needed to "perfect European norms on the [free] movement of people, and perhaps the Schengen accords".

Althought the statements came from prominent members of Italy's ruling centre-left coalition, they appeared more in tune with what one might expect from the anti-immigration Northern League party or far-right groups.

While some Italians took the law into their own hands and Romanians were beaten up, the government also introduced a decree by which citizens from other EU member states can be expelled from Italy if deemed a threat to public safety.

The move was seen as a direct response to Romanians in Italy and provoked a diplomatic row with Bucharest.

However, blanket prejudices are no solution, Iulia commented.

"It would be easy for me to tell Italians to stop confusing us Romanians, who are all good people, with the Roma, who are all bad. But it wouldn't be the truth, and besides the real problem is that many Romanian criminals who wouldn't risk going to other European countries came to Italy because of the lack of controls here," she said.

"It's as if Italians didn't want to acknowledge our presence here officially so that they could carry on employing us illegally. But in doing this they opened the doors without checking who they were letting in".

Since the initial outcry that included calls for mass deportations, the storm has ebbed. The government also admitted that just over 200 expulsion orders - 90 percent issued to Romanian citizens - have been signed since the law was introduced.

The government also assured the EU that its decree did not violate the bloc's directives on free movement. Interior Minister Amato has qualified his statements on Schengen, insisting that Italy would not seek to revise the treaty.

Nonetheless, the wave of xenophobia that followed Giovanna Reggiani's death, highlighted the unease many Italians feel about the transition of their country from a place people used to leave to seek a better future abroad, to a destination for immigrants trying to improve their lot.

"Italians now want to take out on us their anger over their own failure to integrate immigrants properly," Iulia said.

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