The Italian town where tensions are flaring over migrant workers

At Fincantieri’s vast shipyard in the Adriatic port of Monfalcone, around 1,700 Italians are working together with 6,800 skilled foreign labourers to build three massive cruise ships for international travel companies.

But the Italian town’s popular far-right mayor Anna Maria Cisint finds living alongside the shipbuilding giant’s foreign workforce and their families — predominantly Bangladeshi Muslims — rather more difficult.

Cisint, who was re-elected in 2022 with the backing of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy and Matteo Salvini’s League, has long complained about the Bangladeshis, north Africans and other foreigners that now together account for over 30 per cent of Monfalcone’s population.

Tensions between the mayor and Muslim residents came to a head last year, when the city banned prayers at the local Islamic centre, where migrant workers and their families have gathered and worshipped peacefully for two decades, and at its rented satellite premises.

On December 23, six weeks after the prohibition order, around 8,000 people marched in protest at what they see as a bid to deprive Muslims of a fundamental Italian constitutional right: the right to pray freely.

“They bring us here and let us construct nice ships where people can go on vacation,” says Sani Kamrul Hasan Bhuiyan, 33, who migrated from Bangladesh at age 16 to join his father, a shipyard worker. “But when they have to recognise your rights, they want you to be a slave.”

The centre’s leaders are now challenging the ban in court and an initial ruling is expected on February 7.

Cisint says the ban on prayers is a simple zoning issue, pointing out that the Islamic centre, located on the ground floor of a downtown apartment block, occupies a space designated for cultural activities — not religious worship.

“The urban plan says there cannot be places of worship there,” she tells the FT. “I didn’t ask them not to pray. I wouldn’t dare . . . I’m just telling [them] that you have to stay within the rules.”

But Muslim community leaders believe the restriction on their faith reflects Cisint’s hostility to their presence in the town and her hopes of standing in the upcoming European parliament for the far-right League by stoking anti-Muslim and anti-migrant sentiment to raise her profile.

At a rally in December of Europe’s far-right Identity and Democracy Group (ID) — whose members include the League, Germany’s AfD and Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National — Cisint claimed Muslim workers in Italy are practising “the most fundamentalist Islam” and pose “an enormous danger for our cities, territories, culture and freedom”.

But Monfalcone’s Muslim residents believe it is their basic rights — to worship and to teach their children the tenets of their faith — that are under attack.

Tensions between Anna Maria Cisint, Monfalcone’s mayor, and Muslim residents came to a head last year, when the city banned prayers at the local Islamic centre © Giuliana Ricozzi/FT

“For 20 years, we’ve been doing the prayers [there]. Everything is fine — no problem. All of a sudden, someone comes along and says, ‘it’s no good’,” says Abdul Majid Kinani, 54, a Moroccan migrant who tends cattle at a local dairy and leads prayer time at the Islamic centre.

“She is using this community for political purposes and political interests,” he says.

The conflict roiling Monfalcone is a harbinger of tensions on the rise across Italy, as the country confronts the increasing ethnic and cultural diversity that is a natural consequence of its growing dependence on foreign workers.

“Italy still has a challenge in realising that it is a country of immigration — it is a successful country and so you have more immigrants than emigrants,” says demographer and sociologist Francesco Billari, the rector of Milan’s Bocconi University.  

Though Meloni’s right-wing government is preoccupied with cracking down on illegal migrants, it also faces mounting pressure from Italian business and industry to permit more workers from beyond the EU to enter the country legally and fill job vacancies that Italy’s ageing, shrinking workforce is unable to handle.

In Monfalcone, Thomas Casotto, provincial secretary for CGIL, one of Italy’s biggest labour unions, says Fincantieri’s shipyard would struggle to operate without foreign manpower.

“We would not find other workers — we would just simply not make ships,” Casotto says. “Due to low birth rates, we lack arms and hands to work — not just in Fincantieri, but also in agriculture or eldercare.”

But Billari says Italy has so far made little preparation to integrate new arrivals into the society beyond factory and farm gates, though up to 15 per cent of the babies born in Italy each year have two foreign parents.

“Italy doesn’t only need workers. We need workers with their families, workers with children — people who become Italian and will be the next generation,” he says.

Polling suggests Italians are deeply apprehensive about the increased presence of foreign people, especially from outside Europe, in their communities. Muslims, who far-right politicians such as Cisint frequently demonise as a threat to the Italian way of life, are viewed with particular suspicion.

“There is this prejudice that Muslims, or immigrants in general, are only good if they do the work that Italians don’t do any more — and then they should disappear,” says Yahya Giovanni Zanolo, an Italian-born Muslim convert and a regional representative of the Islamic Religious Community of Italy, based in Milan.

“[Foreign workers] are supposed to go to work [for] 10 to 12 hours a day, go back into the houses and stay there,” adds Zanolo, who works in the energy industry. “If they have to pray, then they are terrorists.”

Zanolo is also troubled by what he sees as the widespread perception among Italians that all Muslims are foreigners. “We are living in a society changing very fast. There is a new generation of Italian-born Muslims, who are 25 or 30 years old, born to immigrant parents and they feel 100 per cent Italian,” he argues.

“If politicians really want to have a better society, then just attacking one part of it cannot lead to anything good,” he adds. “The Islamic community must have its dignity — and its places to worship.”

An accurate picture of Italy’s demographic shift is hard to come by. Italy’s national statistical agency, Istat, keeps no data on the religious identity or affiliation of its population nor the ethnic or racial identities of its citizens because those details are considered too sensitive.

But in 2021, Italy’s population of 59mn included 5mn foreign citizens — including children born in Italy to non-citizen parents — and 1.4mn naturalised Italians, 323,000 of whom were born in Italy and acquired citizenship after turning 18, according to Istat.

National Muslim associations estimate 2mn Muslims live in Italy — including around a third of the foreign residents — while the US-based Pew Research Centre put Italy’s Muslim community in 2020 at around 2.9mn people, or nearly 5 per cent of total.

Despite this, Italy currently has only five visible mosques, with another hundred or so sites approved for Muslim prayers. Community initiatives for new purpose-built mosques have faced fierce resistance from local authorities, who call them potential hotbeds of extremism.

The province of Pisa, for example, is a hub of Tuscany’s leather industry, which employs numerous workers from Senegal, and 12.5 per cent of its population are foreigners or newly naturalised Italians. Yet the Islamic Cultural Association of Pisa had to fight for over a decade, including a court battle, before securing permission in 2021 to build a mosque on a piece of land on the outskirts of town purchased in 2013.

In the northern city of Cantù, where skilled workers from Morocco and Tunisia are keeping its furniture-making industry running, the local Muslim association has been drawn into a long-running bitter political and legal battle for official approval to use an old warehouse as a place for worship.

Monfalcone’s main square. Muslim community leaders argue that the city provides no support to new arrivals to help them learn the language or settle in © Giuliana Ricozzi/FT

Muslims across Italy, many of whom worship in makeshift settings or rented properties, are watching the ban in Monfalcone with alarm, fearing it will set a precedent and embolden local authorities to crack down on their own precarious places of worship.

“There is a risk of emulation — that other mayors could also start some sort of persecution,” says Yassine Lafram, president of the Union of Islamic Communities and Organizations in Italy, or UCOII. “This sort of approach doesn’t help integration but does the opposite: it risks creating small social conflicts between people.”

In the long-run, Bocconi university’s Billari warns that a failure to accept Muslims as part of society could backfire, leading to the kind of social tensions seen in France where citizens of north African descent feel alienated.

“The big risk for this country is to have a generation of many young people growing up in Italy feeling they are not Italian, feeling they are excluded. They will not be happy about that,” he says. “We run the risk of having them turn against the country they grew up in . . . It’s a potential ticking bomb.”

Monfalcone’s prohibition on prayers at the Islamic centre and a second rented premises a few blocks away is the culmination of a long campaign by Cisint against Fincantieri, and its foreign workforce.

Cisint, whose own father worked at the shipyard decades ago, has focused on the Bangladeshis that account for around 25 per cent of its manpower.

She complains that Italy’s family reunification policies are too liberal, allowing the arrival of Bangladeshi women, with at least one of their children, if their husbands have steady jobs.

Once here, the mayor argues, Bangladeshi women wear their traditional South Asian dress, encourage their children to fast during Ramadan, and fail to either learn Italian or get jobs. In response, Muslim community leaders argue that the city provides no support to the new arrivals to help them learn the language or settle in.

The workforce at Fincantieri’s shipyard in Monfalcone is 25 per cent Bangladeshi, and union leaders say it would struggle to operate without foreign manpower © Giuliana Ricozzi/FT

“These people want to bring Bangladesh to Monfalcone,” says Cisint, who has railed against Bangladeshi women going to the beach or into the sea fully clothed and also tried to crack down on migrant youth playing cricket. “The problem is that Muslim communities have no interest in integrating.”

In Monfalcone, Don Flavio Zanetti, a priest at Sant’Ambrogio Cathedral, says many older Italian residents do express “a feeling of being guests in their own home”.

But not everyone sees the new arrivals as bad for the town. Roberto Antonelli, president of the local small business owners association, says the foreign migrants have revitalised the town’s economy and buoyed the local property market by setting up new small shops, and renting or buying apartments to the benefit of the town’s longtime property owners.

In a country where many schools and maternity wards are closing down due to lack of demand given the collapse of Italy’s birth rate, Monfalcone has also seen a rising number of new births, mainly due to migrant families. “If there were no foreigners, Monfalcone would be a desert,” Antonelli says.

Yet Cisint’s response to the growing presence of foreign workers’ children in local pre-schools — which serve children aged 2 to 5 — was a push to cap foreign enrolment at 45 per cent of total, resulting in at least 60 small children being left without a place in 2018, when the limit was first imposed, according to reports in local media.

Prospects for an amicable resolution to the local Muslims’ hopes of a place to worship appear gloomy.

Rejaul Haq, 35, who came to Italy from Bangladesh in 2006, is now a naturalised Italian and owns a mini-market and stationery shop, has led the search for an appropriate site for Monfalcone’s Muslims to gather and pray.

A decade ago, the community raised money, bought an empty supermarket with a parking lot and secured permission to remodel the building as an Islamic centre. But while the renovations were under way, the city revoked the approvals, triggering a legal battle that the Muslim association initially won but then lost after the city appealed the lower court ruling.

The supermarket now stands in limbo, while a frustrated Haq, who has two children aged 13 and 7, says he sees little way forward. “We are ready to do whatever is necessary to comply with the law but, tell me, what should I do?” he asks. “I want to respect the rules but they do not let me. I am Italian; my children feel Italian. As an Italian, do I have the right to pray or not?”

But Cisint, who was enraged by the Muslim community’s pre-Christmas protest, says the town lacks capacity to accommodate a prayer hall for its Muslim residents, who she says should look elsewhere, including in neighbouring towns. “We don’t have infinite spaces,” she argues.

Others in Monfalcone feel the mayor’s uncompromising attitude is making things worse. Her efforts have impeded integration, says labour union leader Casotto, heightened social tensions, and threaten to radicalise Muslims. What’s more, he stresses, they are futile.

“It’s a lost battle. A battle against time [and] against facts,” he argues. “These people are here [now]. They won’t go back home. Thinking of sending them away is a fantasy.”

Nearly two decades after joining his father in Monfalcone, Bhuiyan now sees Italy as his home. He is a naturalised Italian citizen and an elected member of the city’s legislative assembly with the centre-left Democratic Party.

But he expresses anguish about the injustice he says Muslims are facing.

“I am Italian, I am proud to be a Muslim, I am not a fundamentalist, but the mayor, hiding behind bureaucracy, also took away my rights,” he adds. “Integration means to adapt to a new environment, but it doesn’t mean to refuse the culture of your heritage.”

Additional reporting by Giuliana Ricozzi. Data visualisation by Keith Fray

Articles You May Like

Raymond James promotes Hynes to head of its fixed-income sales
The Fed probably won’t raise rates
Europe’s ‘Granolas’ fuel record stock market surge
Sweden overcomes final hurdle to join Nato in historic shift
Shein considers London listing if US IPO blocked over ties to China