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Sri Lankan Immigration to Italy: Reflections and Anecdotes

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By L.C. Arulpragasam

This article deals with the patterns, problems and some stories of Sri Lankan immigration into Italy during the period 1970 to 2000. Although it focuses on immigration into Italy, the problems discussed are common to most “new” countries of immigration.

The latter are the non-English speaking countries, which have become Sri Lankan’s most important immigrant destinations since 1980. The writer and his family lived in Rome for 30 years during this period and were able to witness the progress and problems of this immigration and to listen to some immigrants’ stories: some of them glad, some of them sad.

Some general observations may be useful by way of background. First, the “colour bar” has always acted as an implicit or explicit bar to immigration in the early days to “white” countries such as Britain and Australia in the 1950s. In this light, it is remarkable that Italians showed little colour consciousness when Sri Lankan immigration began in the late 1970s. This is partly a heritage from Roman times when coloured Cleopatra was lionized in Rome, while a couple of the last Roman Emperors were from current Middle Eastern countries.

A personal experience of mine illustrates this lack of colour consciousness in the early days. Around 1975, having capsized in my boat during a storm in the middle of a large lake near Rome, I was left stranded about ten miles from where I had set out. I had no option but to walk to the main road bare bodied, bare-footed, and clad only in my swim suit.

I had barely thumbed a ride when the first three cars ground to a halt, competing to give me a ride, despite my rough appearance. For those helpful Italians, I was a stranger in their country (proclaimed by my colour), who needed their assistance. Forty years later, however, things have changed substantially – for both qualitative and quantitative reasons, as discussed later.

Secondly, the question of class has played an important role in determining the immigrant destinations of Sri Lankans in the early days. In the 1950s and 1960s, Ceylonese immigration was aimed at the English-speaking countries such as the UK and Australia.

Apart from the question of colour, immigrants were accepted to those countries only if they were English-speaking and professionally or otherwise qualified. This in practice restricted such immigration only to the Ceylonese English-educated middle class. Conversely, these middle class migrants did not seek immigration to European countries, such as France, Germany and Italy, because they could not aspire to professional/middle class jobs in those countries because of needed language skills.

Contrarily, these non-English speaking countries became the favoured immigration destinations for the poorer classes in Sri Lanka, who aimed only at low level labour and service jobs where local language skills did not matter so much.

Thirdly, the numbers and pressure of incoming immigrants also affects the attitude of the host country towards them. While Italy became the most popular destination for working class people from Sri Lanka, it ultimately also attracted a flood of immigrants from the Philippines and Bangladesh, with later inflows from Northern and Sub-Saharan African countries, multiplied again by influx from the Balkans and Eastern Europe.

The sheer numbers of the poor and uneducated people of different colours caused pressures in the lower level labour and housing markets, which together with cultural differences and exaggerated fears of immigrant crime gave rise to anti-immigrant feelings in Italy by the mid-1990s. For example, the Bangladeshis by the late 1980s had monopolized the activity of cleaning car windscreens at traffic-lights.

Many Italians, who had always championed immigration, submitted to their windscreens being washed – even if they did not need it – in return for a small payment. But even they got really fed up when accosted everyday at every traffic light (about four times a day at the same traffic lights!) till even they shouted “basta” (enough)!

To this, I have to add my own experience. Whereas I had experienced a positive reaction to my dark colour in the episode by the lake in 1975, I had the opposite experience twenty years later, around 1995, in Rome. Coming out of a supermarket one day, I saw a frail old lady staggering along the uneven payment, bent double over her heavy shopping bags.

Since I was walking in the same direction to my car, I walked up to her and said: “Senora, can I help you to carry those bags?” Even I was not prepared for her reaction: she recoiled in aversion or fear, clutching her bags away from me, shrieking shrilly “No, no, no!” I took off like a thief caught in the act! From an overall point of view, there had been no change between 1975 and 1995 – except that the numbers of immigrants had redoubled many times over and that they were all from among the unemployed poor.

Hence, the sheer numbers and class of immigrants seemed to have changed the perceptions and attitude of Italians towards them.

Any overall view on immigration needs to look at the push factors which cause emigration from the home country, as well as the pull factors which attract them to the receiving country.

As for the push factors, the hard economic times of the late 1970s and 1980s caused the first wave of Sri Lankan immigrants, who were mainly from the poor fishing families of the west coast, mainly Catholics from Negombo, Wennapuwa areas. This was followed by more Sinhalese migrants from the west coast and the interior who migrated for the same reasons.

On the other hand, communal violence and lack of economic opportunities also impelled an exodus of Tamil migrants to Italy in the 1980s, which gathered speed in later years. A good indicator of the force of the push factors can be gauged by the premium paid to agents to arrange the logistics of immigration.

In the Sinhala areas, the price charged by agents for immigration to Italy was around Rs. 300,000 in the early 1980s, but had increased to around Rs. 600,000 by the year 2000. In the Tamil areas, due to political and security considerations, the rate had increased to around Rs. 900,000 by the year 2000, and is probably more today.

A consideration of the push factors also brings to mind the enabling factors that make such immigration possible. A ring of agents appeared who extracted money from the would-be immigrants to arrange their journey.

When Italy introduced visa restrictions for Sri Lankans (around1981), people-smuggling became a recognized industry. Even fishing trawlers were used by smugglers to make the hazardous journey. Overland routes were also used, with immigrants being abandoned in transit countries both by land and by sea, while even outright scams were reported.

The pull factors which attracted migrants to Italy are equally important. The first was quite fortuitous. Soon after World War II, Ceylon and the Philippines were the only two advanced and westernized countries in Asia; hence Italy waived its visa requirements for them both.

Italy thus became the primary immigration destination (the default position) for Sri Lankans, both as a base for future hoped-for entry into the UK or into other countries of Europe; if they failed, they returned to Italy for prolonged or permanent stay.

The main pull factor was obviously economic. Although Italy was a relatively poor country in the 1960s still recovering from World War II, it had already become a hive of economic activity in the 1980s and 1990s, powered partly by a “black economy” dependant on cheap immigrant labour.

Meanwhile, a middle class had emerged which could afford domestic help by way of sub-wage immigrant labour, in which Filipinos and Sri Lankans were the most preferred. When success stories of the first immigrants reached home, more family and friends followed the good-luck trail to Italy.

Another pull factor arose from the exaggerated stories of successful or not so successful immigrants. The sociological literature has noted that the first immigrants are usually the more desperate or adventurous types, often those who had not done well in their own countries, since those with secure jobs would not take risks for the unknown.

Some of them exaggerated their stories to show how well they had fared in the “promised land”. I remember how a recently arrived Sri Lankan immigrant posed for photographs of himself in his employer’s bed, having surrounded himself with the TV set and all the telephones in the house (to make sure that they all showed in the photograph) to show how well he had fared in the new country. Needless to say, when this photo made the rounds in his village, everyone wanted to immigrate to Italy!

The third pull factor is the establishment of a “bridgehead” in the receiving country. The existence of a bridgehead or network in a new country served not only as a beacon of attraction but also as a support-system for new immigrants.

We knew of a Sri Lankan maid working for a rich Kuwaiti family who, during that family’s one-week tourist visit to Rome, absconded and went underground, knowing that the Sri Lankan network would find her employment. Unfortunately, part of this Sri Lankan network later got into the business of forging Italian visas for family and friends to enter Italy. Needless to say, this was done with the bribery and connivance of Italian immigration officers who allowed entry on the basis of these forged visas.

Since I was working for an international agency in Rome and was not an immigrant seeking residence in Italy, I lived in quite a different world from those of the immigrants. But some of them crossed our path, while we also heard their stories through our Sri Lankan domestic helper: some of them happy, some of them sad.

In the 1970s, before the crush of new immigrants from other countries created more problems, Sri Lankan immigrants generally fared well. When a domestic employee of a Sri Lankan Ambassador decided to stay back in Italy, we helped him find employment in the home of a staff member of an international organization. There he met a Burgher girl from Sri Lanka who worked as a domestic helper in another home.

Although he was a less educated Sinhala Buddhist boy and she was a relatively educated Catholic Burgher girl, they decided to get married. They had a grand wedding, in which our home served as “the bridegroom’s home”, while they went on their honeymoon to the Isle of Capri, of which the girl had learned from the popular song in Sri Lanka!

We managed to get this young man a messenger’s job in FAO. Their children were educated in Italian schools; their son became an engineer, married an Italian girl, became an Italian citizen and started a good professional career.

We also got involved in the marriage of a Sinhalese Catholic girl (this time our house was the “bride’s house” because the bride was a friend of our domestic helper) to an Indian Catholic boy from Pondicherry (a former French enclave in South India) who was a chauffer in a foreign embassy. The bride spoke only Sinhala and English, while the bridegroom spoke only Tamil and French.

So they conducted their romance and marriage in Italian! In retrospect, I realize that these love affairs and cross-marriages occurred mainly because of the paucity of Sri Lankans in Italy at that time. Moreover, the liberating social context of the new country must have helped to break the bonds of caste, class and community which would have inhibited such marriages in Sri Lanka.

There is also the good luck/bad luck story of Gnana, the domestic helper who absconded from the Kuwaiti family during their tourist visit to Rome. She found a job with an Italian family and sent her money regularly home to Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, her husband was having affairs with other women in Sri Lanka and was demanding more and more money – an experience shared by some women workers in the Middle East.

Finally her husband insisted on coming to Italy; he managed to achieve this by accusing her of having a lover there! Since Gnana’s female employer could not house him too in her small apartment with her growing girls (which was known well before he arrived), Gnana and husband were forced to rent an apartment of their own, which consumed all her earnings, so that they were worse off than before.

Meanwhile her husband could not/would not find work but continued his drinking habits, which reduced the family to poverty. Thus Gnana’s story ended unhappily, like those of some our women workers in the Middle East.

The next story involves a graduate of the University (let us call him Mr. Dissanayake) who had held a sub-staff post in a government institution in Sri Lanka. He turned up one day at our home in Rome with his suitcase, although I had never heard of him, having found my address from the telephone directory.

Since he had no money, he asked whether he could stay with us for a couple of days because he had nowhere else to go – to which I reluctantly agreed.

After a week of no activity, I suggested that he should find a job or move out: the problem was that he was looking for a staff job although he did not know the language! So he moved to a small hotel; but he returned after one week asking for a “loan” to pay his hotel bill! Hence we were forced to have him back, so as to avoid paying that bill too! But this time I told him firmly what was obvious: if he could not read and write Italian, he definitely could not get a white-collar job in Italy.

Hence, his only options were either to work as a domestic servant, or to leave the country. The latter, he said, was impossible because he had borrowed so much money that he could not face his creditors in Sri Lanka. There was also the shame of failure – which is a major theme in immigrant stories. So ultimately, he resigned himself to a job of domestic service.

There is an interesting class and communal side-story here. When Mr.D. attended a Saturday night party with other Sri Lankans (who, for reasons mentioned earlier, were all domestic servants or casual labourers), a fight had erupted over the only Italian girl present, which got so raucous that the Police converged with sirens blaring. The other Sri Lankans scaled over a high wall and escaped, but our white-collar Mr. D, not being so agile, could not get over it.

So another Sri Lankan dragged him over, helping him to escape the Police and also sheltering him for the night.

In recounting this story to me, Mr.Dissanayake said of his rescuer: “You know, he is not a bad chap after all, even though he is a Tamil”, telling this to me, a Tamil! Mr. D. ultimately found employment in the home of an elderly Italian Prince or Duke who had married a 22 year old American starlet from Hollywood. The family lived in a grand Palazzo in Rome with suits of armour, coats of arms, etc.

which I saw for myself in a picture postcard at a newspaper store! Anyway, the employers’ marriage broke up after four years and the starlet decided to move back to America – and she took Mr.D along with her to look after her little daughter. Thus Mr.D. moved to greener pastures in the USA, where he has now obtained citizenship.

Meanwhile back in Sri Lanka (I have learned from friends) that he has completely abandoned his family and escaped his creditors too!

Later times produced more harrowing tales. By this time (1980 and beyond) Italy had become the preferred destination for many poor, unemployed Sri Lankans, which in turn prompted Italy to impose visa restrictions on all Sri Lankans. This gave rise to a whole system of illicit immigration, which in turn bred networks of creditors, agents and people-smugglers in Sri Lanka, with associated networks abroad.

The first line of stories of these harder times comes from the poor migrants and their families. There are harrowing tales of families pawning their jewelry and selling their homes in order to finance a son or daughter to make the hazardous journey to Italy. In other sad cases (like Mr.D), the migrants did not send money home, leaving their families to face their creditors and the foreclosures of their homes.

On the positive side, there are many happy tales of migrants financing dowries for their sisters and building houses for their parents and themselves. In fact, the Catholic coastal belt near Wennappuwa is called “Little Italy” named for the houses built there in ornamental Italian style.

The next set of stories is about the agents who arrange this illicit immigration. This became a commercialized operation undertaken by local agents in Sri Lanka, who used their networks abroad to smuggle people into Italy. This people-smuggling was done initially by air; but when this route became difficult, riskier sea and overland routes became more popular.

The sea routes were mainly through the Middle East and the Mediterranean, using fishing trawlers and other vessels, aided by agents in the transit ports to arrange safe passage to Italy. The land routes were varied and devious; some immigrants were even flown to Russia, and then sent overland, entering Italy through former Yugoslavia.

One such case (around 1992) warrants mention because it received extensive media and TV coverage. It involved a young Sri Lankan couple with two small children, one aged four years and the other, a babe in arms. They had first been flown to some place in Russia at the height of winter and were then driven overland, travelling always by night. They were brought through former Yugoslavia, arriving at the Italian border around midnight.

Although the young man had hidden some money in his socks, the agent stripped him of that too, while all of the woman’s gold jewellery was taken away. They were then pushed over the border at midnight into a forest, at the height of winter. (It beats me why they had chosen the winter season to make their dangerous journey!). The woman was wearing only a cotton sari and short blouse (with bare midriff) and open slippers, while the children were clad only in thin cotton clothes.

They had no idea where they were (hoping that this was actually Italy), groping their way in the dark through this freezing forest.

Within three hours the children were famished and frozen and the baby was freezing to death. Even before the first rays of sunlight they had given up hope, and were ready to surrender to the police in order to save their baby.

So when they spotted a lighted window in a clearing, they knocked on the door and asked for help and for the police. The alarmed woodman hurriedly contacted the police and they were taken in: but it was too late, for the baby had died in her mother’s arms. They were taken to a hospital where the nuns nursed the mother and surviving child for two months to a full recovery.

Their story was highly publicized in Italy, appearing on TV every night, with the nuns hugging and kissing the surviving child, which aroused the sympathy of all Italians. But after all the publicity (or because of it), the Italian Government had to show that it was tough on illegal immigration, and ultimately deported the family back to Sri Lanka!

In another case recounted to me second-hand, a young Sri Lankan immigrant (as in the previous case) was stripped of all his money and pushed over the Italian border at night. Although he managed to find his way to the nearest town, he was famished and urgently needed food to keep alive.

He was identified by the local drug dealer as a new immigrant and a likely carrier in his trade. Our immigrant was approached and offered food and money in exchange for delivering a parcel (drugs) to a given address.

The young man was thus introduced soon after his arrival into a network of crime from which he was not able to extricate himself. Apparently this was a common experience among illicit immigrants from other countries too, born of the desperate circumstances of their entry. Not surprisingly after some time, some Italians were able to point to a connection between immigration and crime – which also helped to change Italian attitudes towards immigration.

The sea route was equally hazardous. There were reports of migrants being left stranded in foreign transit ports by unscrupulous agents. In addition, around the year 2000, the Italian Government managed to get co-operating countries en route to detain the immigrants even before they reached Italy. This resulted in some Sri Lankans ending up in jail in Middle Eastern countries on the way.

Finally, another sad story comes to mind, received by me third-hand. Some would-be immigrants, after paying large sums of money to their local agents, were clandestinely loaded into a boat at night. After sailing for many days from Sri Lanka’s shores, they at last sighted land in the distance and were told that they had reached Italy. They were landed in the night on a thinly wooded shore and were instructed to work their way to the nearest town in the morning.

But when morning came, they found that they had been landed near Hambantota! To add to their chagrin, they still had to face the shame of their village, the blame of their families and the demands of their creditors.

By the year 2000, the Italians had got more than fed up with the unstoppable flow of immigrants from many countries, resulting in growing socio-political prejudices and pressures against all immigration. If one goes to the main railway station in Rome today (Termini), one sees literally hundreds of immigrants of different colours from different countries, including North Africans, Sub-Saharan Africans, Balkan refugees, East Europeans and Latinos hanging around with nothing to do. Pressure was also mounting from countries of the European Union against Italy as offering a soft and corrupt underbelly for entry into their own countries.

Forced to take action, the Italians passed the Bossi-Fini law in 2002, which among other things provided for strict controls on illicit immigration.

Another set of actions saw the “outsourcing” of border control by the Italian Government through logistical and financial support to countries en route to stop the migrants before they reached Italy. Nor was Italy any more the “promised land”, since there were already too many immigrants for the jobs available there!

All these factors have led to a choking of Sri Lankan immigration into Italy since around 2002, while the economic crisis now has made matters worse. It is presumed, however, that the illegal inflow still continues in attenuated form, since it provides a possible entry point into other countries of the European Union.

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