Turin migrant sense shifting mood

April 28, 2010

By Guy Dinmore in Turin

Published: April 28 2010

A Muslim woman passes policemen in the northern city of Milan
A Muslim woman passes policemen in the northern city of Milan. Difficulty in obtaining citizenship is blamed for driving away immigrants

Change comes slowly in Italy and just as the industrial city of Turin is establishing itself as the country’s most progressive urban administration tackling integration issues, the tide of immigration may be starting to recede.

Evidence is anecdotal for the moment, but it appears that at least among the Moroccan community – the largest group of non-European Union immigrants, numbering some 30,000 in Turin – people are packing their bags and going home.

The economic crisis is biting and jobs are much harder to find. On top of that, new legislation makes it harder for immigrants to renew their residence permits, and the xenophobic Northern League, a hardline coalition ally in the centre-right government, is resurgent following its sweeping gains in regional elections last month.

Abdelaziz Khounati, the Moroccan president of an Islamic association that has the green light to build a mosque in Turin, reels off a list of cities where the Northern League has blocked similar projects, sometimes threatening to walk pigs across the land to desecrate it.

“First the League campaigned against the southern Italians who migrated to Turin decades ago, then it was foreigners in general. Now it is Muslims,” he says, standing in the large empty building, part of which used to be a Chinese-run clothing workshop, where the new Misericordioso (Merciful) mosque is taking shape.

It will be only Italy’s second formally recognised mosque after Rome’s, funded by the Moroccan government. For the moment Muslims across Italy worship in “cultural centres”, sometimes no more than a garage or a basement.

“We stand for an open, integrated, multicultural society where all people’s rights are respected,” he says. An Islamic cultural centre will be opened next to the mosque, promoting studies, social initiatives and inter-faith dialogue.

“The mosque has been a war of nerves,” says Ilda Curti, city councillor for integration under Sergio Chiamparino, Turin’s popular leftwing mayor, as she describes how the Northern League has tried but ultimately failed to exploit legal loopholes to block the city-backed project.

Turin, described by the United Nations as a best practice model in Italy, has focused on integration in schools and runs a scheme giving immigrant youths the chance to work as volunteer social workers, bending the rules to ensure they keep their residency.

But Ms Curti says difficulties in obtaining Italian citizenship are also driving away young and talented immigrants who have come through school but now face insurmountable barriers. The “medieval corporativism” of many professional associations makes citizenship a condition of membership.

The Northern League’s victory at the polls last month – where it defeated the centre-left administration in Turin’s surrounding region of Piemonte – is further bad news for immigrants. The League intends to strip non-Italians of their access to unemployment benefits, a feature unique to Piemonte, even though some have been paying their taxes for years.

Mohammad Mouharba was among the first wave of migrants in 1989, when Italy offered jobs and residence permits. Mr Mouharba now runs a popular bakery specialising in Arab and Italian pastries on the edge of Porta Palazzo, Europe’s largest open-air market where many fruit and vegetable stalls are run by Moroccans.

People he has known for years are going home, unable to renew their residence permits. “They expel you if you have no work. This is inhumane,” he says. “With the League it will get worse.”

His two children, aged 18 and 15, have Italian citizenship and are “more Italian than Moroccan”, he says. “But you always remain an immigrant here.”

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