Migrants bused from riot-struck Italian town

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ROME (AP) — Bloody clashes between African migrants and residents in one of Italy’s poorest regions over the last few days brought home a national dilemma Saturday: Many Italians don’t want to pick crops in the south or toil in the north’s factories, but resent the desperate foreigners who will work for a pittance.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi last year dismissed any notion of a “multiethnic Italy.” His conservative coalition, which includes the anti-immigrant Northern League party, has repeatedly cracked down on illegal immigration, sometimes drawing the ire of human rights advocates, U.N. officials and the Vatican.

With opinion surveys showing that many Italians blame immigrants for crime, tensions persist between citizens and foreigners — and sometimes erupt into violence, as they did these past days in Rosarno, a town in Calabria, an underdeveloped southern agricultural region with chronic unemployment.

At least 38 people were wounded in the violence, which began Thursday night when two migrants were shot with a pellet gun in an attack the migrants blamed on racism. Violence continued Friday with clashes involving Africans, Rosarno residents and police. Among the more seriously wounded were three migrants beaten with metal rods.

By Saturday, the violence had largely subsided, except for a pellet-gun shooting that wounded a migrant on the outskirts of town, police said, and authorities began busing out some of the hundreds of frightened and angry migrants.

Others, lugging shabby suitcases or tossing duffel bags over shoulders, headed for train stations or left in cars if they could arrange rides, said Laura Boldrini, an official from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Italy.

“Even if they haven’t collected their pay, they prefer to lose the money. That gives the measure of their fear,” Boldrini said in a telephone interview from Rosarno.

Perhaps half the 1,000 or so migrants — from Ghana, Nigeria and other African nations — chose to stay for now, many sleeping in tents or cardboard “rooms” in a dilapidated, abandoned former cheese factory on the outskirts of town.

Some have work permits, many are clandestine workers and others have refugee status, said Boldrini.

Just over a year ago, two migrants were shot in Rosarno, one losing his spleen, Boldrini said. Then, the migrants reacted with a “peaceful march.”

This time “the immigrants reacted with violence, and this in turn triggered a spiral of violence,” the U.N. official said.

Many of the migrants in Rosarno came from Italy’s north after factory jobs dried up last year because of the economic crisis, Boldrini said. That increased the migrants’ pool of labor for backbreaking dawn-to-dusk crop picking paying about €20-25 ($30-37.50) a day.

Although unemployment runs some 20 percent in the south — and at least double that among youth — few locals are willing to work so hard for so little: The kiwi, mandarin oranges and other citrus fruits are harvested by the migrants.

The latest violence “must be an occasion to reflect on immigration policy,” said Boldrini. While there are clandestine migrants, “their work is needed and they are exploited,” she said.

Opposition politicians accused Berlusconi’s government of failing to enforce laws requiring immigrants to have a job and proper housing to be granted residence permits. But Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, the top law-and-order official in the Cabinet and a leading Northern League politician, blamed previous center-left governments for “too much laxity.”

Berlusconi’s government is split over whether to make it easier for immigrants to become citizens. On Friday, Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini announced a cap of no more than 30 percent of foreign children in Italy’s public school classrooms, sparking criticism the measure would hurt the social integration of immigrants.

For decades, Italy was spared many of the social problems several Western European nations, including Germany and France, had in integrating large immigrant populations.

Then Italy’s immigrant population began to soar. Nobody knows how many foreigners are clandestine migrants, although charity groups say as many as one-half the workers might be toiling without permits.

According to the national statistics bureau, Italy had about 300,000 immigrants in 1980. Last year, the number of non-Italian residents was nearly 3.9 million, in a country of 60 million.

Last year, Berlusconi defended his government’s decision to send boatloads of potential asylum seekers back to Libyan shores, where they had set sail in smugglers’ boats. He said a multiethnic society “is not our idea” of Italy.

The U.N. refugee watchdog, church officials, and human rights and humanitarian groups decried the crackdown, which included a requirement that school principals and doctors report illegal immigrants.

The Vatican’s No. 2 official, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, on Saturday decried the migrant labor plight in Rosarno and urged “peace, reconciliation and reciprocal acceptance.”