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Native-immigrant conflict in the cities: evidence from Italian refugee-crisis management

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In the “age of immigration' '(Castles and Miller, 2009) human mobility is one of the main change factors of contemporary world, where global interdependence and growing demographic, economic and social imbalances facilitate human movements. It seems particularly evident with the current refugee crisis that is crossing European states and is redefining every sphere of our societies. Following the Arab Spring (2011), at the moment the number of illegal migrants arriving at Italy’s coasts is reaching an unprecedentedly high level because of the deteriorating of security in Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, Iraq, Libya, and more recently, Central African Republic and South Sudan. In 2015, 153,946 migrants arrived in Italy by the Mediterranean Sea. Immigration crises raise several issues for sociologists and criminologists, closely linked to the social inclusion of asylum-seekers and refugees in destination communities and the construction of societies based on mutual recognition and acceptance of differences and, moreover, to the growing feeling of insecurity of populations related to immigration.

The refugees crisis and the “risk” of immigration

Among European countries, Italy is playing a lead role within migratory movements to Europe. EU Border Agency Frontex (2015) reveals that in 2014 there were approximately 170.000 illegal border crossing along the Central Mediterranean route, which links Libya to Italy, almost quadruple the number of crossings detected in 2013 and more than 15 times than those reported 5 years before. In 2015, the migrants arrived by the Mediterranean sea are 121.500.

These numbers show that we are facing a permanent phenomenon in which economic flows overlap with refugee and asylum-seeker issues. 

Focusing on what happens within receiving countries, we could start defining immigration as a “risk” which involves both destination societies and migrants’ life. The concept of “risk” permits us to highlight that harms could be inflicted by socially originated events as well as being unexpected consequences of beneficial intentions (Galantino, 2015; Battistelli, 2016).

As regards immigrant risk, the goal to have better life conditions passes through language learning, getting an house and a job as well as the achievement of independency in destination societies. By contrast, to reach social inclusion, they have to face the risk for own life during the journey and risks connected to the social exclusion process. 

Focusing on destination societies risk, foreigners could contribute to the demographic regeneration, produce cultural and social innovations, facilitate economic development. In a different way, it could increase the sense of insecurity of communities linked to immigration and facilitate the development of local conflicts. 

In this high complex scenario, cities are the places where the immigration challenge is played out, becoming strategic hubs where citizens experience global phenomena and, for scholars, the main field to study contemporary trends. Especially, in the age of globalization, market supremacy and consumerism, migrants' reception can give a chance to stimulate urban involvements, recreate the sense of community and, in this way, prevent insecurities and anti-social behaviors.

The local management of refugees crisis in Italy

Since the first arrivals of migrants in Italy during 90’s, three aspects have characterized flows directed to Italy. First, the exposure to sea due to geographical location, which has caused emergency situations in the coasts and, sometimes, the death of people in the sea. Second, the proximity with some of the most important conflict areas such as the Balkans during the Gulf war and, currently, the South Mediterranean shore and the Middle East region. Finally, and strictly linked to former two, the presence of forced migrants.   

To manage the current immigration crisis Italian government has adopted emergency policies aimed to ensure both the rescue of people in the Mediterranean sea, such as “Mare Nostrum” (2013-2015) and their first reception, “North African Emergency” (2011-2012) and European “Triton”. During their stay in the first reception, migrants receive necessary medical care once landing, can apply for international protection and, finally, are located in common reception centres displaced in the Italian cities.

They form a “dual” reception system with SPRAR1 (System of Protection of Refugees and Asylum Seekers),  the main Italian action directed to reception of forced migrants. 

tor-sapienzaThe localism produces different kind of reception within the SPRAR system and different results. If in the medium and small size cities SPRAR action seems to achieve their goals, the case is different in the suburbs of big cities, where the presence of foreigners seems to radicalize existing problems, such as the lack of public services and social cohesion, urban decay, unemployment, crime, internal social tensions, and their perceptions in residents as well as increasing their sense of insecurity.

Therefore, we will talk about the working of SPRAR in a outskirts in the East side of Rome called “Tor Sapienza”, where in November 2014 a violent urban conflict occurred between natives and guest migrants in the SPRAR reception centre. 

Tor Sapienza: a brief history of a suburb 

Born in 1920s in the East side of Rome, immediately after the First World War, Tor Sapienza was the location of some Italian companies during the “economic boom” of 1950s and 1960s. Therefore, a lot of workers decided to stay in the suburbs, several of them came from the Central and the South Italy.  

Since 1970s a  phase of crisis started because of the closure of companies and the deteriorating of socio-economic conditions in the suburbs and, beside that, the presence of foreign settlements in the area. In that period started a process of social and physical separation in the suburbs, and the creation of “cleavages” even noticeable today. The first settlement was the building of a public housing complex in Giorgio Morandi  Street (see picture), an area physically distant by the rest of the suburbs because of his location on a little hill separated by the rest of the neighbourhood and where coexists problems such as high population density, the strong state of degradation of the public housing complexes, an economic and cultural and relational poverty due to the presence of "isolated communities and social network fragmented, unemployment, lawlessness (Champs, Horace, Prezioso, 2014; Troisi, 2015).   

viale MorandiDuring ‘90s and 2000's, very close to the historic areas of the suburbs (3km), two gypsy settlements rose up together with the birth of some reception centres for refugees and asylum seekers. Among them, the SPRAR centre for  foreign minors located in Giorgio Morandi Street. 

Finally, Tor Sapienza is characterized by the presence of some interesting squatter movements such as “Metropoliz Città meticcia”. In 2009, Italian and foreign families occupied the building of a company fallen into disuse. Within it, “Museo dell’Altro e dell’Altrove” was born, nowadays one of the main exhibition spaces for younger artists in Rome. 

The internal heterogeneity in the outskirts produces internal cleavages and social distance between the actors who live the suburb.  

The first one was between residents in the suburb area close to Giorgio Morandi street and the rest of the neighbourhood, as confirmed by the words of the spokesman of “Morandi-Cremona Committee”:

"For example, only after many years living here I realized that residents of the historic part of Tor Sapienza call those who live in the public housing complex of Morandi street “quelli dei palazzoni” [colloquial] in a derogatory sense". Furthermore - continued the spokesman of "Morandi-Cremona Committee" - "they [the inhabitants of the historical area] are never here because we have nothing while we go there for public and commercial services”. 

In the same manner the spokesman of neighbourhood Committee “Tor Sapienza” said: "Tor Sapienza is unique but the problem is that Morandi area has only housing, and so there is no interest to go there. Having the stores here, of course they come".

In this fragmented scenario the relationship between SPRAR reception centre and neighbourhood is developed. By the opinion of respondents a distance emerged as the President of cultural association “Morandi a Colori” admitted: “SPRAR centre has to work on multiple areas, all complicated, and communicate in a political and institutional context in which nothing works. One of the aspects that they haven’t done very well is the relationship with the neighbourhood”.

In this sense, the operators of  SPRAR centre explained that "[asylum seekers'] children go to school in Centocelle and Pietralata [other suburbs of Rome] and working out of the neighbourhood". The operator youth centre “Antropos” explains that "we tried to do things together but without results". It is because, in his opinion:

“SPRAR doesn’t have this value of integration. It makes me think of what happened in the US, where small enclave (Chinatown, Little Italy) were created that don’t communicate with each other, despite this the United States teaches us much about social inclusion. If you invest only in reception and not in integration you don’t have results”. 

Finally, the relationship with local institutions, and respondents complained of their absence, was explained by the representative of historical neighbourhood Committee in this way:

"Tor Sapienza underwent a political abandonment of over 20 years. We always remember the neighbourhood before the problem emerged. It had begun to suffer when Rutelli [the Mayor of Rome between 1992 and 2000], despite the presence of a gipsy camp that had never bothered anyone, created another problem. From that moment began fires and theft, something I denounced for many years. The immigrants have  never been a problem, although people who don’t work and have to survive end up meeting other desperate people, even as nomads, leading to the creation of a union, an explosive sequence."

Immigrants, insecurity and conflict

Riot-police-in-Tor-Sapien-012At the end of 2014 Tor Sapienza was shocked by several days of violence linked to the presence of SPRAR centre in the area of Giorgio Morandi street. The fact had a great impact on Italy and the international media2. Assaults began in the night between the 10th and 11th of November, following the news circulating among residents of an attempted rape of a young woman living in the neighbourhood.    

Thus, natives burned bins and threw stone against the SPRAR centre which in that time was hosting 45 foreign children and 35 refugees and asylum-seeker adults.  The day after, 70-80 people attempted to assault the SPRAR centre, throwing paper bombs and burning bins and cars. 

On January 2015 new protests arose against the SPRAR centre. They led the Councillor for Social Policy of Rome to "transfer the refugees for their own good and to restore social cohesion" (Bogliolo, January 19, 2015). The situation, finally, exploded on March 2015 when eviction letters received by some residents living in the public housing of Giorgio Morandi street caused the transfer of the latest people in the reception centre and, later, to its final closure.

In order to understand reasons for the conflict, interviews were done with privileged witnesses of the suburbs. The first evidence that emerged was the critical situation of residents living in the Morandi Street. As the President of the Municipality in which Tor Sapienza stands said: 

"Surely there was a suffering situation in Giorgio Morandi street for many reasons? Social contexts quite distressed, structural situation not the best. During these years there has been a confluence of marginal situations: gipsy camps, reception centres, the deconsecrated church occupied, emergency housing next to the reception centre that have created a strong social tension."

Strictly connected to it are the causes which determined the conflict.  The first problem complained by residents was some anti-social behaviours, especially incivilities, attributed especially to foreign minors. The President of “Morandi a colori”, one of the main cultural association in the suburbs, said that residents complained because “immigrants often ate pre-packaged food at the park, leading to an accumulation of dirt”. In the same manner the operator of the cultural youth centre "Antropos" admitted: "the problem was about insults, and broken machines complained about by residents against 37 foreign children".  Even who worked in the SPRAR centre spoke about “the noise made by minors, more agitated than adults". The representative of the Morandi-Cremona Committee said that migrants showed themselves "naked in front of the windows, forcing residents to see indecent sights". 

The second explanation concerns the social insecurity affecting residents in Giorgio Morandi, especially who live in the public housing complex. In this context, immigrant is labelled as “outsider” (Becker, 1963) and “unfair welfare user”. The spokesman of Morandi-Cremona Committee introduced this topic: 

"The foreigner is taken care of whilst help for Italians doesn’t arrive until the end of the month. In a neighbourhood such as Tor Sapienza, where income is low, people are very sensitive to this aspect. You meet a pampered foreigner who throws food in the dumper and your neighbour, who is without light and heating, can’t pay their bills at the end of the month." 

Also the representative of the District Committee Tor Sapienza said: "I don’t see racism but people angry about disparities, both between Italians, between Italian and foreign, between foreigners". This theme returned in the words of the President of the Cultural Association "L’Abbraccio”: “those who honestly ask for a house from public services, are overtaken by those who enter with force and whom cannot be sent away”. An interpretation confirmed by the representative of "Metropoliz": there’s no particular prejudice against the "Other "cultures but a huge prejudice exists against poverty, that concerns everyone because it is the mirror of our near future. 


"It has long been recognized that urban areas, especially large cities, are places where cultural diversity flourishes. […] History demonstrates, however, that diversity is not a sufficient condition to bring about the sustained inclusion of the different groups that populate a city." [Ray, 2003]

The refugee crisis that we are living in, makes evident the “risk” posed by foreign presence in destination societies, especially in the cities, where immigration shows itself as “a total social fact” (Sayad, 2002) that  “involves every spheres of human being and his interaction with the economic, social, political, cultural world in which he lives”.

In these years, Italy is discovering itself as an immigration country, after a long history of emigrations. The high number of forced migrants on the Italian coast brings about highly complex challenges in terms of management of crisis as well as immigrants' inclusion and peaceful cohabitation between foreigners and natives. 

In my point of view, the case study realized in the suburbs of Tor Sapienza is particularly meaningful in relation to possible negative effects generated by the presence of immigrants in local communities, especially if those communities are already affected by serious social problems. In these cases, the presence of refugees and asylum seekers seems to radicalize the “strain” due to these precarious social conditions. Inequalities and the comparison with forced migrants, perceived as “unfair users of welfare benefit”, seems to produce a feeling of relative deprivation in residents which triggers deviant acts. 

Moreover, as Agnew (1999, p. 135) argued, “we would expect inequality to be most likely to lead to crime in those communities in which advantages of others are very visible, in which they are perceived as similar, in which individuals are encouraged to make upward comparisons, in which the reasons of inequality are perceived as unfair and in which individuals are constrained or disposed to respond to deprivation with crime”. In this context, signs of incivility experienced by residents “index the adverse or negative treatments that community residents must endure” (Agnew, 1999, p. 139).  

In this context  the institutions play an important role in designing policies to manage immigration which consider aspects such as the careful distribution of forced migrants in the urban spaces, which avoids their location in high-risk areas of cities and, in the same manner, the relationship between immigrants and social contexts to facilitate mutual understanding. 

In conclusion, it is necessary to realize that the refugee crisis is a permanent phenomenon, in which economic flows overlap with refugee and asylum-seeker problems. Therefore, only through the design of policies aimed at immigrants' inclusion, will European countries be capable of managing the “risks of immigration”. 

In fact, even if the path towards immigrant integration is long, complex and full of pitfalls, it is the only road to travel for the construction of a multicultural society, for preventing insecurities an social deviance, and avoiding the social exclusion of a lot of people who will inhabit our cities in the future. 


1 SPRAR  was created under law no. 189 of 2002 and it draws upon the National Fund for Asylum policies and services managed by the Interior Ministry. Local authorities, with the support of the Third Sector, guarantee an "integrated reception" that includes board and lodgings, orientation measures, legal and social assistance as well as the development of customized plans for the social-economic integration of individuals.

2 "Riot policedeployed after violence agaionst refugees in Rome", The Guardian, 13 November 2014.


Agnew, R. (1992), “A general strain theory of community differences in crime rates”, Journal of research on crime and delinquency, vol. 36, n. 2, pp. 123-155. 

Battistelli, F. (2016), La sicurezza e la sua ombra. Terrorismo, panico, costruzione della minaccia, Donzelli, Roma.

Becker, H. S. Outsiders. Studies in the sociology of deviance, Free Press, New York.

Castles, S. and Miller, M. J. (2009), The age of immigration. International population movements in the modern world (4th ed.), Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.

Frontex (2015), Annual risk analysis.

Galantino, M.G., (2015) Imimmigration as a threat for security?the Italian media debate and the Lybian crisis. Paper presented at the SGRI conference 2015, Trento. 

Sayad, A. (2002), La doppia assenza. Dalle illusioni dell’emigrato alle sofferenze dell’immigrato. Cortina: Firenze. 


Elisei P., & D’Orazio A., & Prezioso M. (2014) Smart Governance Answers to Metropolitan Peripheries: Regenerating the Deprived Area of the Morandi Block in the Tor Sapienza Neighbourhood (Rome),

Goni Mazzitelli, A. (16 novembre 2014). “Perché Tor Sapienza”, Comune info,     

Ray, B. (2003), “The role of cities in imimmigrant integration”, http://www.immigration

The Guardian, 13.11.2014, Riots police deployed after violence against refugees in Rome,

Troisi R. (18 febbraio 2015) La periferia fatta da noi. Comune Info, 

Daniele Ferretti, PhD student in Sociology and Applied Social Sciences at Sapienza University of Rome. His research topic is the management of immigrant reception in Italian cities, his supervisors are Profs. Fabrizio Battistelli and Maria Grazia Galantino, and this essay was written during a semester working with Prof. Colin Sumner in the Department of Sociology at University College Cork.

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