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Syrians Find Prospects Thwarted by Housing Discrimination in Italy

Discrimination against foreigners – whether economic migrants or refugees – in Italy’s rental market has been exacerbated by the economic crisis. Refugees Deeply spoke with Syrians living in Bologna who have struggled to find housing despite owning their own businesses.

Written by Sean O’Neill, Preethi Nallu Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
An asylum seeker sits outside an informal shelter in Rome, Italy. With arrivals continuing into 2017, Italy's reception centers are overwhelmed and struggling to accommodate those in need. Sabine Dobel/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

BOLOGNA, Italy – Hassan M. would be considered a model immigrant in most countries. Originally from Damascus, the 39-year-old has lived in Italy for 20 years. He speaks native-level Italian, became a citizen three years ago and has owned a pizzeria located in a residential neighborhood near the center of Bologna for the past 11 years.

“I have lived in Italy longer than I lived in Syria,” Hassan told Refugees Deeply one afternoon at his pizzeria, as he took a break after the lunch rush.

Hassan makes a good living, yet he and his family have recently been unable to find someone to rent to them.

“Some people tell me directly, ‘We don’t want foreigners,’” Hassan explained, relaying an exchange with an Italian landlord. “Once I talked for 10 minutes with the owner, [but] when I gave them my name, they said, ‘Sorry, no foreigners.’ I said, ‘I’m an Italian citizen.’ They said, ‘Sorry, if you’re not born in Italy, no.’”

Bologna is a city with a progressive reputation – a historic university town that is nicknamed “The Red,” both for the color of its buildings and its leftist politics. It is the capital of Emilia-Romagna, the Italian province with the country’s largest proportion of foreign-born residents, at just over 12 percent.

Yet many foreign-born residents – and some Italian-born residents with foreign-sounding names – report difficulties finding housing in Bologna.

For now, Hassan is living with a friend, 30 minutes outside of town. His wife and 4-year-old daughter had to go to Jordan to stay with his in-laws. The family’s life has been on hold while Hassan searches in vain for a long-term home.

“I never had a problem before,” Hassan said, pointing out that he has rented apartments in Italy in the past. “I always paid. I can show this. I can also show my income. But it doesn’t matter.”

Hassan M. outside of his pizzeria in Bologna, Italy, which he has owned for 11 years. (Sean O'Neill)

Hassan M. outside of his pizzeria in Bologna, Italy, which he has owned for 11 years. (Sean O’Neill)

Italy’s Housing Crisis

Italy is grappling with the social and economic impacts of being one of the primary entry points for migrants and refugees into Europe. More than half a million people, many fleeing conflict and persecution, have reached Italian shores in the past three years.

More than 175,000 asylum seekers are currently housed in overwhelmed reception centers across the country, while many others will sleep rough over the winter months. In a recent report, Doctors Without Borders said the crumbling reception system and a dearth of integration support has led to “social marginalization and unacceptable living conditions” for both asylum seekers and resettled refugees.

Even those who find work and can afford to pay rent have trouble overcoming the structural issues that foster housing discrimination in Italy

Immigrants in general – old and new arrivals, economic migrants and refugees – have traditionally struggled to find housing in Italy. The high prevalence of private landlords in Italy, whereby individual homeowners define “suitable tenants,” makes migrants more vulnerable to housing discrimination.

Asylum seekers hold a banner during a demonstration in central Rome calling for shelter and protection. (Christian Minelli/NurPhoto)

Asylum seekers hold a banner during a demonstration in central Rome calling for shelter and protection. (Christian Minelli/NurPhoto)

The situation has spiraled since the 2008 financial crisis, prompting severe housing shortages. New construction has slowed to a trickle. The weak economy and unpredictable lay-offs have also increased owners’ distrust of tenants. From 2008 to 2015, home evictions due to rent delinquency increased tenfold in Bologna – from 108 to 1,109.

Evicting a non-paying tenant can be both legally cumbersome and expensive in Italy. To protect themselves against delinquency, owners often ask for multiple down payments and as much as a year’s worth of a bank guarantee.

“In general in Italy, if you’re in a house, you’re legally cared for, but this is now out of balance with the economic crisis,” explained Luca Decembrotto, head of social programs at Piazza Grande, an organization that cares for the homeless in Bologna.

Decembrotto says that migrants comprise a large part of the current homeless population in the area. To help alleviate housing woes for socially vulnerable groups, the NGO Piazza Grande has directly rented 100 houses from owners and acts as a guarantor for rent and bills if the people they place in the houses are unable to pay.

Italian homeowners face greater financial risks in renting their properties. “I gave keys back to one [landlady] the other day, who was nearly in tears,” said Alessia Ranieri, the main liaison between Piazza Grande and private apartment owners. “She said that the year before, she had lost 20,000 euros ($21,190) between delinquent rent and legal expenses to evict the renters. She said she just can’t afford that.”

Italian landlords have become more wary of renting to immigrants, who they fear are economically insecure and lack informal social networks that are vital to survive in Italy. “The prejudice is constructed like this,” said Decembrotto, “foreign equals poor equals dangerous.”

They Don’t Want Foreigners

Mazen al-Sayyed, also from Damascus, arrived in Italy about three years ago. The 36-year-old came to Italy by boat from Egypt, following the 2013 overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi and worsening conditions for refugees in the country. Among an exodus of Syrians from Egypt, Sayyed was one of the few to receive asylum in Italy in June 2014.

After a period of living in free housing for newly-arrived asylum seekers, he became homeless. While hunting for a home in Bologna, he lived in a dormitory set up by activists in abandoned police barracks for eight months.

After experiencing housing difficulties in Italy, Mazen al-Sayyed plans to move to another country in Europe. (Sean O’Neill)

“The young people [Italians] are great, they’re not racist. But the older generations own the houses, and they don’t want foreigners,” he said.

Sayyed owns a Syrian takeout restaurant in the historic center of Bologna. He struggled to secure a leased space for the business, despite having enough capital to pay for it.

One of his employees, Jumanah, is Lebanese and has raised two daughters in Italy. “Even Jumanah had problems,” Sayyed said, disbelief in his voice. “She had to have her daughter find a place for her, since the daughter speaks without an accent. But still [the landlords] asked the daughter where she was from. She said, ‘I’m raised in Italy, I’m Italian.’ They didn’t like her name though, so they said, ‘Sorry, no.’”

A New Home

Sayyed finally found an apartment in late November, 2016, through a friend of a friend. “A Tunisian guy I know knew a Moldovan guy who was leaving his place,” he said.

Like many other asylum seekers in Italy, Sayyed intends to leave the country once he receives citizenship. Restarting life in Italy has been hard. Migrants could help reinvigorate Italy’s ailing economy by setting up independent businesses, for example. But with little state support and after experiencing local prejudice, some, like Sayyed, feel they cannot make a real home for themselves and their families in Italy.

Hassan plans to leave even sooner than Sayyed. He hopes to move to Denmark, where he says he has experienced more openness, opportunities and, most importantly, a well-established educational system and broad-minded society where his daughter can thrive.

“I’m not even looking for a house [in Italy] anymore,” Hassan said. “I was really enthusiastic when I got my citizenship, but after this experience, I feel discriminated against.”

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