THE FEAR OF STRANGERS
Venice, Italy, June 28, 2018 -- The other day a young man telephoned a radio talk show host and
complained about Italy’s recession, the lay-off of workers and the problems associated with the daily arrival of
“You are not blaming the migrants for the country’s problems like everyone else does these days,” the
outraged radio host responded, ‘these migrants have nothing do with recession and the machines that are
In two short sentences the radio host had focused one a daily phenomenon in a European
Union (EU) where populists with ambitions to govern blame the invasion of refugees for every
conceivable malaise, economic recession, layoffs, housing shortages, rent hikes all of it spiced with
freely invented statistics about a rising crime
rate due to immigrant criminals, many of them rapists and terrorists. These claims are usually quickly
exposed as lies but like most fake news items are readily accepted by a great many. (The crime rates
in Europe have not gone up after the invasion of refugees.)
The witch-hunt does not stop with refugees. Italy’s freshly anointed Interior Minister Matteo Salvini,
who promised to rid the country of half a million migrants, now also wants to expel gypsies though he admitted:
“Unfortunately we can’t expel those who have Italian citizenship.” (who often have been in the country for generations)
The migrant problem has become so acute the European Union - a fragile 28 country
consortium of past and often still rancorous old enemies - is seriously in danger of breaking apart
amid escalating paranoia about ‘aliens taking away our jobs and our cultures.’
The fear of ‘barbarians at the gates’ has become a rally cry for the other barbarians of Europe, the
opportunistic and ruthless politicians whose pipsqueak political parties and movements have always been married
to neo-racism and neo-fascism but in the past had to navigate on the fringe of the political forum.
Suddenly these populists were voted into power or into coalitions and, surprise, surprise, quickly
turned into autocrats. Their gimmick? Inflate the fear about refugees and outsiders with fake news and racist
Today the Europe of free movement of people and merchandise between nations is no
longer fraternal. Led by the Hungarians the Poles, the Czechs, the Slovenians, the Austrians, the
Maltese and lately the Italians, these so-called Visograd nations have refused to abide by European
Union rules, mainly the quota system to accept a certain number of migrants based on a country’s
The Hungarians have already built an anti-immigrant wall patrolled by German shepherd dogs and
their armed handlers. In Hungary helping an illegal migrant - even to show someone where to obtain documents for
asylum applications - is punishable by one year in jail. The Italians are accusing the Germans not only of being the
main financial beneficiaries of the Union but of leaving Italy with the bulk of the migrant problem since the majority
of the refuge-seekers land on Italian shores or islands. The Austrians (who closed seven mosques in Vienna this
month), the Slovens, Poles and Czechs, even the French are forcibly sending migrants who crossed their borders
back to the country on whose shores or borders these migrants arrived.
Italy’s new government demands a repeal of the Berlin accord of 2015 which made the nation where
a refugee lands responsible for that individual. The accord has left Italy, where the majority of people plucked from
the sea land, the main recipient of the mass migration towards Europe.
The European Union does offer a daily payment for each newcomer but in Italy’s mafia-infested south
with its major ports, these EU per-person payments may not go to the refugees. One of those local refugee
‘commissioners’ in charge of such handouts was recently reported driving a new Ferrari.
If all this bodes badly for the future of the EU, lingering grudges about unfair treatment by
the EU bureaucracy in Brussels (which doles out quotas on what a country can produce and export)
have fanned theflames of anti-immigrant and anti-Europe sentiments.
Yet economic strategists agree Europe, the world’s largest economic bloc, is quite capable to absorb
the two million refugees who have arrived so far as well as another two million over the next few years. Nearly all of
these new arrivals who cross oceans on haphazard rubber crafts are rescued at sea with only the clothing on their
backs. About half have escaped wars, the other half is searching for economic opportunities. Those among the
newcomers who found work are mainly employed in jobs Europeans no longer wish to soil their hands with.
On a midday lunch break the workers outside the shipyards at Marghera near Venice, are nine out
of ten Africans. The waiters at Venetian restaurants are mainly Africans and Asians, a fact that
upset one young Venetian who complained he was fired as waiter because he refused to work overtime and for the
same money as ‘those foreigners.’
A sports storeowner in northern Italy told me angrily that young Italians applying for jobs immediately
tell him they will not work at the weekend, will not do overtime and want to know how many weeks a year he offers
them holidays. This at a time of economic downturn when jobs are rare.
Migrants, he said, do not ask these questions.
True, many Italian and European businesses do pay criminally low or black wages to migrant
workers particularly in the south where casual labour to harvest tomatoes has been paid as low as two Euros (1.60
dollars) a day.
Yet it is the presence of mainly coloured people, unemployed, wandering through cities and urban
parks that has upset Europe’s less educated, those who have never travelled, who listen to rabble-rousing
right-wing radio and TV stations and the elderly afraid of losing their pensions when in fact the taxes from this new
immigrant workforce will help pay for their old age pensions on a continent where old people grow older and fewer
babies are born each year. And then there are the religious differences, strange foreign habits, veiled faces and the
lack of language.
“Migrants are lazy, they don’t want to work, they steal and they play with their mobile phones all day.
Kick them all out I say,” said Michele, a mechanic in the northern Trent region.
Michele who lives in a small alpine town has never met a migrant, never seen one, never heard one
yet he says: “I know what they’re like. Don’t tell me. I can’ stand them.”
Like many, he is the face of ignorance, people who today vote for the crude and coarse opportunists
nosily promising to rid their country, one way or the other, of the migrant ‘scourge.’
Not one of them has come up with a solution, apart from letting them drown in the sea by stopping
their leaky rafts from landing.
Uli Schmetzer was a foreign correspondent for Reuters and the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of six books all available on
Amazon.com and Kindle.