Q&A: Italian Red Cross president on community outreach to combat xenophobia

Francesco Rocca, Italian Red Cross president. Photo by: Italian Red Cross

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The Italian Red Cross has been the first line of support for hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war and famine in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, with more than 70,000 arriving in the first half of this year.

“Mixed with xenophobia, this situation is unacceptable and is being driven by politicians for their own gain.”

—  Italian Red Cross President Francesco Rocca

But over the past several years, a culture of relative openness has been replaced with fear of terrorism and xenophobia. Fearing for the impact this will have on vulnerable lives as the situation worsens, the Italian Red Cross has ramped up programs that focus on cultural awareness.

During a recent visit to Kuala Lumpur, Italian Red Cross President Francesco Rocca spoke to Devex about the growing crisis and their strategies to create change for social inclusion.

Here is the interview, edited for length and clarity.

Can you discuss the situation in Italy? How are attitudes toward people seeking refuge in Europe changing?

The Italian Red Cross is providing support for hundreds of thousands of people as they arrive in Italy. We have volunteers and staff who are providing for all the needs, including health, education, and various support required. And we are working with locals, NGOs, government, and communities to achieve this.

We are also focused — now and historically — on social inclusions. We work with municipalities to create all the conditions within communities for good social inclusion and acceptance of people in need of humanitarian protection.

But this activity at the moment is where we face the biggest challenge. Xenophobia, a fear of refugees, is increasing in Italy. Much of the fear is coming from terrorist attacks in Europe. Mixed with xenophobia, this situation is unacceptable and is being driven by politicians for their own gain.

The ongoing situation is creating frustration. Mixed with the toxic view of politicians, we are also seeing media perpetuating negative stereotypes. Recently, we had a Red Cross conference focused on Africa and I talked to an Italian journalist about the drought in the Horn of Africa where 20 million live are in danger. And the published story had the headline “20 million are ready to leave Africa for Europe.”

“The lack of EU action especially is creating acceptance of using migrants as a tool to create fear.”

This makes the task more difficult. When we move to humanitarian issues, journalists and politicians need to be more careful about the words they are using to not create panic and fear and give the right and proper message.

But at the moment we have to work within this framework — of refugees needs combined with negative images. It’s a challenge.

How is this impacting your ability to access services, provide support, and raise funds?

This is definitely a problem for how we do things. Let me say very frankly and openly that from the Italian perspective, politicians are using lack of action from the European Union as another weapon against the poor migrants. Instead of fighting or criticizing what is happening, the lack of EU action especially is creating acceptance of using migrants as a tool to create fear.

We are working in poor conditions, and doing the best we can.

Just to give an example, we expected around 30,000 refugees to be relocated, but only about 3,000 have been relocated within Europe. And of course you understand that if you open an emergency center and tell the community it is only for a few months, it then becomes difficult to engage on the topic because no one believes what you say.

If we were able to open centers to cater for smaller numbers, that would be different — it would be manageable. But that is not possible.

What are the strategies you are using at the moment to counter the negative views and messages?

In all of our centers, we work on education with migrants to teach them language and culture of our country to help them integrate and be able to find a job.

But on the other hand, we are working with civil society and with young volunteers to provide education in schools on a peer-to-peer basis. It provides students to the right information about migrants and refugees. They need to understand why these people left their country and why they are here seeking support.

The increasing negativity toward migrants has seen an impact on our fundraising, but despite this we are committed to continuing our job. And strangely, requests for volunteers have seen their numbers increase. This is difficult to explain, but it is important for us in addressing social inclusion — and this is currently a priority for our work.

“The dignity of each person needs to be respected and our role is here.”

The engagement with schools, when you engage directly, it is creating change. But you first need an open-minded teacher, open-minded politicians, and open-minded mayors. Mayors within communities play an important role in Italy to create a right and protective environment within a community.

From the perspective of the Red Cross, we are not engaged in discussion on protection; we try to leave this to the lawyers. For us, it is protection of the dignity of each human being. Then it is up to the government to verify who is or who is not in need of protection. But the dignity of each person needs to be respected and our role is here.

There have obviously been a lot of changes over the past two years in community responses to refugees. Looking forward, what are you anticipating to be the next challenges you will be facing and how is the Red Cross working to pre-empt and address these?

The challenges are financial. In Europe, the continent is still affected by the economic crisis of the past six years. The Red Cross is trying to do our part, but the challenges are great.

“What we are facing is not a crisis; it is a phenomena. If we treat it just as a crisis we cannot respond effectively.”

Financial support is very important to us to help achieve what we need to do, but we also need to facilitate and build a supportive environment. When money comes in, we have done the groundwork to make the support effective. Culture is important here, including changing how the media can play an important role for the better.

What is important is the right message is being sent out — and this is our focus now.

What we are facing is not a crisis; it is a phenomena. If we treat it just as a crisis we cannot respond effectively. And to achieve this, we need to build hope.

As an example, some areas of Kenya are home to the poorest people in the world. But in some areas, counties have invested in education and health to make an improvement, leading to economic improvement. And there is hope in these areas — and here people are not escaping.

What we need to do is create real and concrete hope for a better future, for families and children. In this phenomena, there is little hope. And right now we need to focus on social inclusion to make hope return.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.