Italy has launched a “boot camp” school for refugees aimed at encouraging cultural integration for asylum seekers.
At a mayor-founded academy in Bergamo, a group of 30 uniformed migrants form two neat rows, hands behind their backs in a military-style “at ease” position. In the corridor of a building, they sing: “We are the students of the first course of the Accademia dell’Integrazione Grazie Bergamo, Thank you Bergamo”.
The students are asylum seekers participating in a boot-camp style one-year program whose explicit purpose is to integrate migrants.
Participants attend Italian-language classes, get internships at factories in the area and have to follow a strict routine. They also have to do community service work for free.
The academy’s students can only use their smartphones for a few hours a day. For the best part of the day, their rooms are empty, with perfectly made beds. No language other than Italian is allowed. And they look more like cadets than students.
They must always wear a uniform and have three kinds of outfits.
When they are inside, it is a blue tracksuit with the words “Grazie Bergamo” in large print on the back; the second uniform is orange, similar to waste collectors, and also bears the words “Grazie Bergamo” in large print; the third, worn in free time, is a blue shirt and grey sweater with a small school logo, which also allows them to take the city’s public transportation free of charge.
“This is not a school for everyone”, Giorgio Gori, mayor of Bergamo, a wealthy city in northern Italy, about 50km east of Milan, told.
It’s no place for slackers, he says, because participants “must respect a series of rules of cohabitation” and professional training is mandatory, “with the aim of getting them to a job”.
To get into the program, participants must pass three interviews assessing their know-ledge of Italian, the level of schooling and their ability to respect the rules.
Christophe Sanchez, the mayor’s chief of staff, who created the academy, believes that Italy’s system of asylum seekers’ management is not working and attributes its failure to the fact that they have rights but few duties: “Asylum seekers can stay in bed all day and there is no legal instrument to force them to do something.”
The underlying message of the academy seems to be that participants must demon-strate that they are hardworking people, that they really like Italy and are not trouble-makers – in other words, that they deserve to stay.
The fact that the program includes free-of-charge community work, not to mention the “Thank you” part in the name, gives the impression that migrants must be grateful.
Stefano Quadri, an activist from the Bergamo 'migrante antirazzista' group, an anti-racist organisation, objects to the idea that migrants need to prove they deserve to be hosted, since asylum is a human right, and says free labor “destroys the local economy”.
A worker at the Ruah coop, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, is worried that students live in relative isolation, with little contact with locals: “Integration means inserting a person in society,” he said.
But organizers brush off criticism, saying that the program is effective.
“We have so far done 380 hours of volunteer work and all our students understand Italian”, says Sanchez.
As for the free labor, Gori insists it is not really free: “Between food, lodging and class-es, we are investing 1,000 euro per months on each of them, so in a way they are getting paid