Italy is the least informed country in the world when it comes to immigration. A 2018 poll known as the “Ignorance Index” revealed that the majority of Italian citizens falsely believe that immigrants make up more than 30% of the population in their country. In reality, immigrants make up only 8.9% of the Italian population. Even the areas with the highest densities of immigrants do not exceed 16%. According to Roberto Beneduce, these gaps in perception are influenced by many factors.
These biases could worsen now that Giorgia Meloni, the far-right leader of the Fratelli d’Italia party, was elected Prime Minister of Italy in October 2022. Already, Meloni has tightened immigration policies, and her discourse is undeniably protectionist. It is unclear how Meloni’s policies will influence Italians’ perceptions of immigrants, but many fear the worst.
We sought the insights of Roberto Beneduce on this topic. He has extensively studied the reception and assimilation of migrants. Beneduce also has a clinical practice at the Frantz Fanon Centre where he and his team welcome migrants from many provenances.
Roberta Campani: We are interested in Italians’ perceptions of foreigners on their territory. Since you have great experience in reception and accompaniment of immigrants, we would love to have a presentation from you on the current situation.
Roberto Beneduce: The perception of the Italians is certainly oriented by many events and many variables. Italy’s current economic and labor situation has had an impact. Political speeches and media biases have equally decisive weight. It is difficult to imagine a perception that is independent of all this. We have to conceive a model of hybrid, multiple causations to understand this perception…
There are three primary axes influencing Italian perception of immigration.
The first major influencer is misleading political speeches. Many Italian politicians express their desire for a hegemonic culture that representss native Italians. These speeches show a perceptual reality marked by concern for the number of immigrants seeking asylum or arriving on Italian shores through the Balkan route and crossing the Mediterranean
The concern is emphasized by right-wing political parties to motivate conservative choices when it comes to border control, humanitarian and international protection policies, and the need to tighten regulations surrounding the reception of foreigners. This conservative perception is often reiterated by the media as they intentionally highlight social conflicts between the native population and foreign nationals, competition for job opportunities or access to different resources (housing, for instance) while simultaneously skipping over more positive stories concerning immigration. This media practice acts as confirmation bias for those who wish to deny the realities of immigration. It could be argued that their way of representing the context of migration is an act of “linguistic terrorism,” to quote the words of Ferruccio Rossi Land, an Italian semiotician.
The second axis influencing Italian perceptions on immigration consists of groups committed to the “humanitarian sector.” These people oppose those who view the flow of immigrants as threatening. They see immigration in relation to the social, economic or war dynamics that are characterizing our present. Italians with this humanitarian perception want to rise up to the demands of asylum seekers and immigrants, and seek to create conditions of encounter rather than conditions of conflict.
The perception in this second axis doesn’t find immigrants as threatening subjects and adheres to real statistical data instead of inaccurate and inflammatory news stories. People of this perception recognize Italy as a country endowed with resources which, unfortunately, are often not used or are dispersed.
The bad use of resources concerns the humanitarian sector too. In particular, I am thinking of the chaotic management of contracts entrusted to the nongovernmental organizations that manage immigrants and asylum seekers. These organizations often hire civil servants who have no specific training in humanitarian work, which creates difficulties in communication with new immigrants. There needs to be more careful selection of humanitarian teams based on proven expertise in managing the reception of immigrants, more particularly of those who are affected by specific forms of vulnerability. We also need more forward-looking policies when it comes to welcoming foreign nationals and helping to integrate them into our society.
Finally, the third axis is the dominant, quieter, more visceral one. Italians with this perception often swing back and forth between humanitarian attitudes and xenophobia. These people often react irrationally to the presence of the Other, the foreigner, perceiving them both as people in need and as threats to native culture.
In this hostile reaction, we recognize two major sociological problems. The first is the systemic racism, the unresolved knot of contemporary democratic societies. We have to recognize that racism permeates not only public opinion, but also institutions, such as schools and healthcare facilities. This institutionalized racism is a huge contributor to the perception of foreigners as a threatening phenomenon. This kind of racism breeds harmful opinions which often manifest as violence, aggression, and acts of humiliation against foreigners. In other words, we cannot forget the structural racism of the nation-state, of the modern State.
That is why I was talking earlier about a real denial of the objective reality when it comes to immigration. We perceive foreigners as threatening and aggressive, but we do not see the violence that is directed at them. We perpetuate narratives where Italians are the victims of conflicts with immigrants. However, it is native citizens who attack, mock, and threaten defenseless or isolated foreigners.
By an unconscious mechanism of denial, these realities are ignored. When Achille Mbembe speaks of a “society of enmity,” he touches the raw nerve of Europe’s contemporary social structure. Animosity towards foreigners is nurtured by political and economic processes that have their hidden roots in slavery, colonialism, institutional racism and capitalism.
We should consider at length why people care so little to question the systematic and daily racist violence against foreign nationals.
A portion of this violence has resulted in actual deaths. In Italy, as in other countries (Japan, for instance), foreigners are the object of constant aggression by ordinary citizens as well as police forces: the case of death for health problems or suicide in what we call “administrative detention centers” became more and more common in last decades. Despite the nationwide prevalence of these aggressions and this institutional violence, people still refuse to consider the deeper implications behind such acts of violence, and just consider the immigrants and asylum seekers as a threat!
Too often, the legal aggravation of racism in these crimes is the subject of endless negotiations, interpretations, and disputes. True legislative progress is painstakingly slow when it comes to mitigating racism. This is a further issue that should be discussed when trying to understand the nature and reproduction of hostile, negative perceptions of foreigners.
A Lebanese-born author, Ghassan Hage, used the term “reverse colonization” to describe the anxieties that arise in societies facing immigrants. As their presence grows, foreigners are increasingly perceived as those who could threaten the religious, ethnic, and cultural identity of our countries, as those who are colonizing our Europe. They believe foreigners will take employment opportunities from natives. They fear that the high reproductive rates of migrants could upset imaginary demographic profiles. Here, again, we meet the dark side of Nation-State’s, its projective (delusional) representation of the Other: the reproductive anxiety, the concern for the building of an ideal, ‘good citizen’ and an idealized loyalty to its beliefs, the need for frontiers that bar the route to foreigners… I call this whole “pathologies of citizenships”.
The many forms in which violence can be imagined, practiced, and projected.
According to Hage, denial is an unconscious mechanism. In the past, slaveholders simply ignored the rape and violence inflicted on slaves but simultaneously feared being the object of such hostile attacks. Today, we tend to deny and erase the violence perpetrated in the past centuries -as well as in the present time- on other populations, other bodies, and other territories.
In other cases, violence takes on an invisible, mundane, but no less perverse character. For example, asylum seekers are subjected to endless queues while waiting for a visa, and they never become full citizens, as the cases analyzed by the Iranian anthropologist Shahram Khosravi well epitomizes (his expression, “stolen time”, summarizes these issues). At the same time, even people living in our countries for many years are often subjected to forms of control and scrutiny of their private life (family, house spaces, and so on), which could be defined as a new, miniaturized panopticon. Xavier Jonathan Inda speaks of “anti-technologies of citizenship” to analyze the current politics of citizenship in the US.
Violence and exploitation have not ended with colonization
The modern exploitation of migrants is no different from the project of European imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As some scholars have documented, it is in the literature that sometimes we find the valuable traces of history and “involuntary documents,” as historian Marc Bloch would say, of the violence against the Other.
Marc Bloch was a French historian who argued in his book, The Historian’s Craft, that “involuntary documents” are more credible historical materials than “intentional documents.” Intentional documents, such as official legislative documents, church records, and autobiographies, are often tailored to certain narratives and are limited in the insights they can provide about the past. Bloch believed that involuntary documents, such as letters and drawings, provide more objective and accurate historical insights.
Bringing to light the unconscious dynamics connected to our anxieties and to our reactions to those anxieties is a task as complex as it is urgent: the task of my ethnopsychiatry. Social reform should be made a real field of pedagogical work. We need “social clinics” where experts can help remedy the fears of indigenous communities as they receive more immigrants and asylum seekers.
Unfortunately, widespread racism continues to poison social relations and feed spasms of white supremacy are occurring far too often. All this results in a political class which is not representative of the entire population but however able to impose its hegemonic discourse: the immigrant as a danger. I do not frequently see minorities represented in the Italian political class, nor in that of other European countries.
Roberta Campani: Unfortunately we do not. What you say makes me think of an old reading by Ernesto de Martino, where he says, as early as 1964, that we should introduce Italians to interiority and to everything that is not European or of Judeo-Christian origin. Did this project take place, and has it been developed in one way or another?
Roberto Beneduce: There is a passage that Ernesto de Martino reaffirms in many of his writings. It is what he calls “non-bourgeois ethnology.” De Martino’s interest in anthropology did not arise from a mere attraction to the exotic world. In our writing of history, and in our process of giving meaning to history, a thread was missing.
Ernesto De Martino used this expression to describe the missing link: the thread of the primitive. He believed that it was necessary to take up this thread again in order to recognize its role in history as it had been written, but also in our modern world and societies. For a scholar of social sciences, the incessant re-emergence of primitive, barbaric, and archaic practices in our societies, laws, and institutions constitutes a decisive theme. We meet here even the strong influence of Gramsci on de Martino’s thought.
It would take little effort to show how our discourses often trivialize the presence of irrational thinking in the societies of Italy, Germany, and France. Not all are protected from this re-emergence of irrational terrors and violence, which often has its target in the “Other.”
De Martino said that not only should this “missing thread” be analyzed historically, but it should also be recognized within our modern societies. An essay from one of De Martino’s most intriguing books, Furore, Simbolo e Valore (1962), addresses the threats of witchcraft in 1950s Germany.
Those pages are valuable, as they depict a German professor knocking on De Martino’s door and bringing him the dossier of a witchcraft trial in Germany, the same Germany that had just come out of another witchcraft, another barbarism. In Italy and around the globe, we have to deal with these shadows, these dark whirlpools of the irrational. From the “neo-shamanism” that fueled the 6 January capitol riots in Washington D.C., to the satanic sects in Italy or in other Western countries, we must recognize that barbarism is something from which we modern humans are not spared.
When we refuse to recognize the presence of the “primitive thread”, and of the barbarism in ourselves, we end up projecting it onto the Other﹣the foreigner﹣ who, for many, continues to embody the negative, the threat, the obscure (bad motherhood, bad families, sexual promiscuity, bad manners…).
These issues require urgent joint reflection among researchers, intellectuals, and the political class.Unfortunately, this kind of collaboration is largely absent today. In fact, there seemed to be more articulation between the political and intellectual classes in past years.
Roberta Campani: When did this regression begin? Within the last two decades?
Roberto Beneduce: It began during the late 1980s and the 1990s. At the end of the Cold War, a radical crisis affected both communism and revolutionary theorists. Intellectuals from both spheres were left speechless and without direction.
The fall of the Berlin Wall is a perfect example, as it marked the dissolution of the Soviet Union and a crisis within communism. After the Cold War, many intellectuals failed to find adequate categories to understand the complexities of the advancing times. They ended up overlooking the fact that violence quietly inhabited the core of both the socialist state and the capitalist state.They couldn’t take on the task of re-thinking articulations of power at a sufficient level of complexity. This contributed, at least from the standpoint of intellectuals, to the loss of thrust in the possibility of influencing future political choices.
Neoliberalism, on the other hand, does not require critical thinking. Neoliberalism needs a subjugated public opinion that believes in an unregulated economy and limitless consumption. A hoard of consumers bends to the image of progress, reaching for the utopian promise of being able to indulge any desire at any moment in time.
By gently imposing the desire to consume to the point that the current economic model is the only thinkable one, neoliberalism has achieved great success. However, when critical thinking arises, neoliberalism also reacts violently..
Indeed, we see how movements fueled by critical thinking are now often criminalized and repressed (what is happening in France is an exemplary witness of this). The need to decolonize our categories of analysis, and our own desires, the cogent need to invent new models, as Frantz Fanon had already indicated referring to colonial societies, continues to be a priority of our present.
Frantz Fanon was a Martinican psychiatrist who studied in France. He was active in the liberation front in Algeria and theorized violence as a necessary way out of colonialism. His theory of decolonization maintains that “all of us are entitled to moral consideration” and that “no one is dispensable.” Fanon’s assertions about human rights continue to inspire activists and scholars dedicated to social justice today.
Can a population, a country, learn to accept and accommodate this contradiction? How?
Roberta Campani: Let us return to perceptions of foreigners in Italy. Can we think of something to reconstruct the bond between intellectuals, ordinary citizens, and political figures? Could something similar to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission be realized?
Roberto Beneduce: Undoubtedly, researchers who do not isolate in laboratories and in their own theoretical models are led to dialogue, listening, and the acceptance of contradiction. This is also what I try to convey to my students.
Therein also lies the meaning of a discipline such as anthropology. On the one hand, the anthropologist studies these contradictions to bring light to these shadowy areas. On the other hand, a good enough anthropologist does not stop questioning the meaning behind these contradictory trends. Among these issues, the old question arises: Why do disadvantaged groups continue to pursue political projects that often go precisely against their interests and goals for society?
Many experts theorize that no one is spared from the temptation and the responsibility of violence. Reconciliation is a process, one that cannot be completed in a short time period. It is a process that requires great patience and long-term commitment.
No authentic theoretical reflection could believe that it is possible to complete the complex process of reconciliation in ten years or less. Reconciliation is an infinite process that can facilitate dialogues with even the most beaten-up and belittled groups. Among those who are isolated and marginalized within our social landscape, one finds that the most enlightened figures too often stay silent in the face of such archaic and deeply ingrained social structures. This is what I recorded and understood these past years.
Contradiction and conflict are part of the reality of every human group of every epoch (this is Balandier’s perspective, which I make my own). When one fails to acknowledge this, the inevitable effect is that the poles of institutional operation, the social, and the intellectual, move further away from one another. This centrifugal dynamic is good for neoliberalism because it allows it to operate with maximum freedom, ignoring the needs of individuals and local communities.
Consider this example: the dynamic that pits the right to healthcare and nutrition against the need to work to afford basic necessities. Those who want to defend the well-being of the environment in which they live will then often find themselves in conflict with those that just look for work. This fracture, as I observed in my fieldwork, can occur within their own families and communities, because despite their personal beliefs, the need to work and industrialize will always be imperative.
Neoliberalism plays into this contradiction. We have seen it in Italy in the case of the oil drilling in Basilicata region of Italy or industry in Taranto. We also see it in Rosignano with the pollution of the Solvay beaches. We saw the same ferocious contradiction in Japan, where Chisso factory gave job opportunities and promoted ‘progress’ while killing and poisoning land, human beings and animals by mercure as the woefully well-known case of Minamata disease demonstrated. There are an infinite number of situations in which the right to health and ecological well-being is dramatically opposed to the demands of work and industrialization.
This contradiction is a metaphor that can be instructive to other fields as well. For example, if I, as an expert in the reception and integration of immigrants, cannot make it clear to natives that foreigners do not create economic competition for social aid or housing, do not introduce new diseases or political threats, then I have mistaken my discourse, my analysis.
Another example of these conflicts is the unlawful eviction of Romani immigrants in 2018. The establishment of immigrant housing in the area caused entire neighborhoods to explode, with some citizens even resorting to violent actions. Eventually, the immigrants were forced to give up their assigned homes. A typical expression of the struggle between the poor…
The fact that the institutions, experts, and social workers did not foresee these conflicts is shameful. Afterwards, they admitted their powerlessness by allowing these expressions of violence and racism to prevail over the law. This event is one of the darkest images of the defeat when it comes to the law and the principle of coexistence. Housing is needed by everyone, including natives. The fact that virtuous complicity cannot be created among even the most marginal sectors is a huge problem.
If the choice is between work and health, between environment and salary, we have already failed. If one has to choose between providing housing for a foreign family or for a native family, between two kinds of poor, we have already failed. The weighing of rights against one another is a dichotomous logic that is properly lethal. I have even heard health workers say that “first, our citizens should be treated. Then, and only then, should foreigners receive care.”
To passively accept these drifts is to allow oneself to drift dangerously. Unfortunately, hegemonic discourses help reproduce negative perceptions of the Other. This is certainly a dramatic problem of our time.
Hannah Gage edited this piece.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.
In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.
We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money. Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.