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Italy's Immigration Agita

Turin is an example of Italy's unsteady future.

11:00 PM, Nov 8, 2007 • By GERALD ROBBINS
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OBSERVING THIS CITY'S public market--one of Europe's largest--isn't only culinary eye candy, but an accurate depiction of the social dynamics currently shaping the Continent. Amid the colorful vegetable and fruit stalls, bargain-seeking pensioners jostle with hyperactive restaurateurs looking for quality versus price. The chaotic causeways intermittently turn into uniform paths as headscarved mothers, replete with the formless raincoat that has come to symbolize Islamic identity, maneuver forth with baby strollers.

More telling is the meat and poultry section. Located in a corner removed from the displays of veal, goat, rabbit, and boar steaks (a local delicacy), is the halal booth for Turin's growing Muslim community. There's a steady stream of skull-capped Moroccans and jeans-clad Somali customers, generating business comparable to the surrounding kiosks. A "Prosciutto" sign is surprisingly displayed among the advertised cuts, undoubtedly deriving from another source than a hog's leg.

Approximately one million Muslims reside within Italy, comprising a diverse assemblage of North African, Sub-Saharan, and Balkan migrants. The largest communities are located throughout Italy's industrial north, particularly in the cities of Turin and Milan. Cursorily glanced, it appears that Italy's population of 58 million can easily manage absorbing this immigration. Demographic projections indicate otherwise. The native Italian population has practically stopped regenerating, resulting in Europe's lowest birth rate (a Continent-wide predicament as well) and one of the world's most elderly populations. The potential repercussions are dramatic for a culture that's practically synonymous with Catholic mores and precepts.

Turin's present circumstances may indicate what bodes for Italy. Its inhabitants like pointing out that modern Italy's history began here. Turin was the country's first capital of the nineteenth-century Risorgimento, the campaign that unified Italy's varied regions into today's nation state. Due to its leading city status, Turin also became a creative and intellectual center--a film industry thrived here decades before the advent of Fellini and de Sica. The post-WWII period transformed Turin into an industrial center. It became known as the "Detroit of Italy" due to Fiat, Italy's automobile giant, being headquartered there.

Industrialization also brought a change in Turin's social composition. Fiat's lure of decent-paying work and greater socioeconomic mobility produced massive internal migration, particularly from southern Italy. Regional antagonisms between the backwards southerners and more sophisticated "Turinese" ensued, bringing about an era marked by continuous strife and tension. The contentious atmosphere of nearly half a century ago has disappeared, with Turin's second generation of southern Italian émigrés blending into the urban fabric.

IS TODAY'S MIGRATION a replay of the recent past? An in-depth study indicates otherwise. Conducted by the Turin-based Centro Federico Peirone in 2001-2002, the study reflects significant differences between southern Italy's influx and the present-day scenario. Although the research was conducted several years ago, it nonetheless provides specific insights as to the challenges facing Turin and Italian society in general.

Perhaps the most significant finding in the Peirone study deals with the supposed relation between family size and industrialization. Popular theory states that the large family households prevalent in labor-intensive agricultural societies noticeably decrease when urban relocation occurs. Whereas second-generation southern Italians and recent arrivals from Romania (currently Turin's largest immigrant population) shrank to minimum-three-person homesteads, those hailing from an Arab Muslim environment hardly changed. The average size of a newly arrived Moroccan family is six people, barely decreasing to just under five members in a second-generation setting.

Another interesting conclusion dealt with religious traits. The study showed a wide variance when it looked at Islam. Moroccans and Albanians--Turin's two largest Muslim communities--are on opposite sides of the spectrum. Only 10 percent of Albanians claim to pray or observe any Islamic ritual. Conversely, one third of Turin's Moroccans believed in a fundamentalist society, a sentiment that nearly doubled to 60 percent when issues such as wearing veils or cutting a hand off for thievery were specifically raised.

Civic outreach towards the émigrés has been uneven. The Romanian community garners more political interest due to their nation's recently acquired membership--linguistic compatibility with Italian also helps. On the other hand, Turin's Islamic population isn't seen as a potential voting bloc worth cultivating. There's an Islamic cultural center that the city helped establish in one of the outlying neighborhoods, but its effectiveness addressing societal concerns is muted.

The nationwide Union of Islamic Communities and Organizations in Italy (UCOII) is another outlet, but all politics is local in Italy, particularly at the municipal level. Turin, Bologna, and Florence are all governed by Communist administrations, but their attitudes towards immigration markedly differ. Whereas Turin exhibits a moderate, somewhat nonchalant attitude towards the issue, its civic comrades adopt hardline policies. Some observers see the discrepancy emanating from Turin's experience with southern Italian migration, a proportional matter which less industrialized Bologna and Florence didn't have to confront. Whatever the explanation might be, the immigration issue tests party cohesion throughout the Italian landscape.

Less than 10 percent of Turin's 900,000 inhabitants are immigrants. The city's Islamic population roughly stands at 40,000 but that doesn't include illegal arrivals. Based on these figures, fears about an Islamicized Turin seem exaggerated. It shouldn't be completely dismissed however. Only 15 percent of Turin's residents are under eighteen years old, while nearly a third are of retirement age. The aging social infrastructure, culturally dissonant migration, and disjointed governmental responses point to an unsteady future.

Gerald Robbins specializes in Turkish affairs at the Foreign Research Policy Institute.