Friday, January 8, 2016

Roman Reactions to Recent Refugees: A Personal Conversation

Photo courtesy of

By Lauren Pinsker

Having arrived in Rome several days before the AGI is to begin, I set about to find opportunities to speak with ordinary Roman citizens about the current Italian/ EU Refugee Situation, and have luckily been quite successful.  I have spent hours conversing with men and women from all walks of life and areas of Italy and Europe, including café owners, artisan crafters, off-duty tour guides, salespeople, bar owners, hotel clerks, art students: basically anyone willing to talk about the current Syrian Refugee Crisis who knew enough English, Spanish, or a combination of the above to communicate (mio Italiano non è buono).  Everyone I spoke to was incredibly friendly, happy to chat about anything Italian, and eager to share their own views of the Migrant Crisis, and although I do not have their names I want to thank each and every one of them for taking the time to talk to me.  Grazie, i miei nuovi amici.

Coming from the US, where migrants and refugees are often extremely unwelcome if not outright vilified, I was expecting to find resentment, complaints about the strain on the economy and state services, fear of increased illegal activities, and Roman citizens who were generally terrified of this largely unknown element that has landed on their doorstep, so to speak.  I expected to hear people compare the Syrian migrants to criminals or terrorists or even animals.  After all, that is unfortunately what you hear in many parts of America today, and in reference to pretty much any immigrant who isn’t a White, “God-Fearing” Christian (of note: Latin Americans).  Surely, I thought, the Italians must be using the same hate speech, blaming the refugees for being in need of refuge, and generally being at least as racist, anti-Muslim, and xenophobic as many Americans seem.

This preconception could not have been more false.  Every single Roman I have spoken to in the past several days has not only proudly proclaimed their civic duty to help others in times of crisis, but of their personal satisfaction that Italy is providing rescue services and aid to their “brothers and sisters” fleeing an especially atrocious civil war.  After all—each and every Roman pointed out—Italy has been dealing with a steady flow of refugees (especially from North Africa, which is directly across the Mediterranean Sea from the country’s southern coastlines) for decades, and so Italy already has a working system for admitting and processing migrants and refugees and the Italian public has long been used to the necessity and good work of such basic humanitarian aid.  The war in Syria is threatening to ruin this system, but not because the refugees are a different ethnicity, or because they practice a different religion, and certainly not because they are bad or dangerous people.  The problem now, Romans say, is that the sheer enormity of the number of Syrian refugees currently trying to reach Europe has flooded the Italian-European Migration Services, immensely slowing and complicating the state’s attempts to process, place, and provide for migrants in need, be they from Syria or anywhere else.

What anger the Romans I spoke with expressed was aimed not at the refugees, but at other EU countries, Scandinavia, and the Americas for failing to help Italy’s overloaded processing system or take in their fair share of refugees and therefore split the responsibility (and cost!).  Two totally different people I conversed with even blamed the Italian and EU governments for causing the problems that seeded the Syrian Civil War, and felt that having to process and deal with the resulting humanitarian crisis was not only appropriate but completely justified because they were at fault to begin with.  One woman used the phrase “you clean up your own messes” and was both confused and horrified that anyone anywhere in the world did not know it was their human duty to assist others, especially if they directly, indirectly, or accidentally caused that crisis in the first place.

When asked about the US specifically, quite a few Romans brought up the quota system that the US had used in the past to refuse refugees—most notably, European Jews fleeing the Holocaust in the 1930s and ‘40s—and that physical space between continents was no excuse for what they saw as America’s blatant refusal to help what they should consider their fellow man, especially when (like now) the US is militarily and/or politically involved in the war that is creating the refugee crisis to begin with.  One loquacious scholar pointed out that the Syrian Refugee Crisis was in a way the opposite of the Holocaust: Syrians are being forced from their home country and spread across the diaspora until such time when they can return to the home country as one people again.  He also pointed out that a civil war in a single country, however atrocious, is extremely different than mass genocide throughout an entire continent, and if America refused to take in Holocaust victims back then there was little chance it would feel more kindly towards the foreign refugees in this situation unless we had learned a lot in the past 75 years.  Serious food for thought.

The questions that remained unanswered in these conversations were those that related to what was going to happen next.  The Romans I spoke with all seemed to believe that if every country (that was able to) took in their fair percentage of Syrian refugees, the migrants could more quickly leave Italy and be able to settle in other countries—and not wait around in detention centers or those awful temporary settlement camps—until peace is restored in Syria and they can go home.  Every person expressed sorrow and hope for all refugees seeking Italian soil, Syrian or otherwise, but agreed that Italy just does not have nearly enough money, time, or manpower to deal with this current surge in numbers.  Not one person felt that helping these refugees—indeed all refugees—was in any way optional, but instead a basic requirement of being a fellow human being.  I couldn’t help but be in awe of Roman generosity, commitment to justice, and their hope of a world where everyone is both free and taken care of.  And I cannot wait to learn more in the week ahead.

Since this research was completed entirely on-site, in person, and extremely informally, I cannot direct your attention to specific web links or news articles without running the risk of bias; however, a web search of "Italian Migration Policy" will give you several months worth of reading.  As always I am happy to answer any (appropriate) questions.