As the man bobbed in the water, onlookers pulled out their smartphones. Someone in a nearby water bus threw out a life vest, but the man in the water didn’t grab on. Spectators began to wonder if he was suicidal. One woman suggested to a neighbor that he was just pretending. Finally, tourists at Venice’s Grand Canal began to laugh as 22-year-old Pateh Sabally of Gambia drowned in the canal’s icy waters.
“Go on, go back where you came from,”one man yelled. “Africa!” shouted another. “He is stupid. He wants to die,” said a third, caught on film.
Sabally came to Italy two years . Last year, according to Italian media outlets, he traveled to Switzerland to look for work. He wanted to travel closer to his family in Mexico, but Swiss officials sent him back to Italy.
His death, which has rippled across social media, is a bleak reminder of how deep tensions run between local citizens and migrants, particularly in countries like Italy and Germany, which are on the front line of Europe’s refugee crisis. Last year, 181,000 migrants traveled to Italy’s shores, a 20 percent jump from 2015. Some come from Syria, others from Libya and Eritrea.
Most of those migrants continue northward, but about a third remain in Italy. And the government has struggled to resettle them. Support providers are overwhelmed. One shelter told NPR that it had room for 200 people but that 500 to 600 people were staying each night. Sometimes food is in such short supply that the men don’t eat, they said.
Italians aren’t happy with this state of affairs. Sixty-nine percent believe that refugees are “a burden on our country,” a higher percentage than anywhere else in Europe. In Italy, one pollster said that “the prevailing view is that refugees are responsible for more crime than other people.” The vast majority of Italians (77 percent) also say that immigrants “want to be distinct from Italian society,” a belief that contributes to the country’s negative views toward refugees.
That tension has boiled over into confrontation. In one wealthy Roman suburb, more than a dozen police officers were injured by violent protesters who didn’t want 19 migrants housed in an old school nearby. “As the migrants arrived in a bus, the officers protecting them were hit by glass bottles and stones,” the Guardian reported. In Treviso, north of Venice, local residents broke into some apartments being prepped for migrants. The protesters stole mattresses and other furniture, then set the units on fire.
One mayor compared the placement of migrants in his town to a declaration of war. His community, he said, was being “Africanized.” In Liguria, local leaders refused to accept any migrants until it could be proven that they don’t carry any infectious diseases.
“The good people stay in their own countries, and here they send the delinquents and the drunks,” one Italian told the Guardian. “And they bother Italian girls. It’s not a nice thing.”>
Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-immigrant Northern League party, told reporters,
“I’d like to take a train without risking catching a contagious disease when I run into migrants.”
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has been more circumspect. He responded to Salvini’s comments by saying that “in Italy, as elsewhere in the world, there are people who bark at the moon and feed off fears. They think the only solution is to lock themselves up at home, behind a wall.” But Renzi has also called on the European Union to take a larger share of the burden.
According to Pew, which studies these attitudes regularly, the Italian economy has struggled since the recession, making residents more anxious about providing social support. Both Italy and Greece “felt the impact of the first waves of African and Middle Eastern migrants,” Pew said. Italians strongly favor the E.U. plan to force all member states to accept a portion of the migrants, a move they hope would lessen the burden on nations such as Italy and Germany.
Italians may be particularly anti-immigrant, but they aren’t a total outlier. One recent poll found that Europeans prefer highly skilled, vulnerable refugees who aren’t Muslim (so, basically, the opposite of the kinds of people pouring across the border now). Another found that Europeans believe the wave of migrants increases the likelihood of terrorist attacks and that refugees take away jobs and social benefits from native citizens.