Watch ‘Italy’s Migrant Boot Camp’, on SBS OnDemand
As an immigrant himself, Senator Toni Iwobi might not be your typical far right Italian politician.
Originally from Nigeria, the 64-year-old politician says he is inspired by Australia’s policy of mandatory detention for boat arrivals. He admires the “massive control against illegal immigration”.
“It is not a crime to defend one’s borders,” he told Dateline.
Iwobi is a Senator for Italy’s Northern League. A populist far right party, which originated in the north of Italy and on its website joked that anything south of Rome was Africa.
The leader of the Northern League and former deputy prime minister of Italy, Matteo Salvini, has rebranded the party to attract support from across Italy by capitalising on concerns about uncontrolled migration.
Salvini is Europe’s most followed politician on Facebook and regularly uses social media to demonise migrants. On one Facebook live he can be seen taunting migrants, “Don’t understand Italian…He’s tired because he’s fleeing war.”
During his time as interior minister his chorus had been similar to the one used by many Australian politicians, “stop the boats”.
He controversially removed humanitarian protection for tens and thousands of migrants, before leaving the coalition government in August in a bid for more power.
The Northern League remains Italy’s largest political party and he is rallying supporters for a comeback.
The party’s popularity has catapulted since Salvini began tapping into public angst over the arrival of hundreds of thousands of mainly African migrants crossing the Mediterranean by boat from Libya. Migrants who enter the country seeking asylum, have been portrayed by the Italian media and politicians as a drain on resources, and have been linked to drug crime, theft and prostitution.
Italy’s 'migrant boot camp'
The small city of Bergamo, in Northern Italy, has been trying to deal with this growing anti-immigrant sentiment with an unconventional experiment, The Academy for Integration - Thank You, Bergamo.
The academy has been dubbed a ‘migrant boot camp,’ for its military-style approach to education.
Founded by the local Mayor and Christophe Sanchez, their hard line tactics involve waking the students at 6am for cleaning duties, intensive Italian language classes and mandatory volunteer work in the community.
Christophe wants the students “to be grateful for the country that is hosting them.”
“I often tell them, you cost 35 euros a day, which is about 1,080 euros a month. In Italy we have welfare benefits of 400 euros a month, so keep that in mind,” he told Dateline.
The Academy makes a deal with the migrants: in return for their hard work and dedication to their new Italian home, Christophe and his team will help the migrants find full time work.
Finding a permanent work contract is key to getting residency in Italy.
Academy student Keita, fled ethnic violence in his village at age 15. Vulnerable and often exploited, he made his way to Libya and then a perilous journey across the sea to Italy.
“When I arrived here, I saw that people lived a normal life, like the one I had imagined for so long…. What can I do to live like them?”
Keita is now 23 and the poster boy for this experiment.
He has worked hard to learn Italian, obeys all the rules and has been given a permanent work contract at a local Italian restaurant. In Italy, Sayomba Keita will stand a better chance of getting residency if he speaks the language and can show he can fit in.
“I have to know how Italians live, what they like, what they don’t like.”
While the image of an obedient migrant might appeal to the residents of Bergamo, the academy rules and regulations do not appeal to all participants.
Abdou Sambou, an asylum seeker from Gambia doesn’t agree with the Academy’s approach. He says the participants are afraid and desperate, and that’s why they endure the camp’s harsh restrictions.
“We don’t have the freedom here… This project is politic,” he said.
Watch ‘Italy’s Migrant Boot Camp’, Tuesday 9.30pm SBS and on SBS OnDemand