AP, Mar. 5, 2011
FLORENCE, Italy (AP) — Svetlana Cojochru feels insulted. The Moldovan has lived here seven years as a nanny to Italian kids and caregiver to the elderly, but in order to stay she's had to prove her language skills by writing a postcard to an imaginary friend and answering a fictional job ad.
"I feel like a guest," said Cojochru. She had just emerged from Beato Angelico middle school where she took a language test to comply with a new law requiring basic Italian proficiency for permanent residency permits following five years of legal residence.
Italy is the latest Western European country turning the screws on an expanding immigrant population by demanding language skills in exchange for work permits, or in some cases, citizenship. While enacted last year in the name of integration, these requirements also reflect anxiety that foreigners might dilute fiercely-prized national identity or even, especially in Britain's case, pose terror risks.
Some immigrant advocates worry that as harsh economic times make it harder for natives to keep jobs, such measures will become more a vehicle for intolerance than integration. Others say it's only natural that newcomers learn the language of their host nation, seeing it as a condition to ensure they can contribute to society.
So far, Italy is only giving a gentle turn to the screw. Cojochru and other test-takers described the exam as easy. No oral skills were tested.
In Austria, terms are tougher. There, where native speakers have been sometimes known to scold immigrant parents for not speaking proper German to their children, foreigners from outside the European Union need to prove they speak basic German within five years of receiving their first residency permit. Failure to do so can bring fines and jeopardize their right to stay.
The government argues that foreigners who master German can better integrate and help foster understanding across cultures. But, like in Italy, critics say it's a just a pretext for erecting barriers.
"The German language is increasingly being used as a marginalization tool," said Alev Korun, a Turkish-born member of the opposition Greens party who immigrated to Austria when she was 19.
Austria's Cabinet approved new rules requiring most immigrants to have elementary German skills before they even enter the country. They're part of a plan to create a new "red-white-red card" — the colors of the Austrian flag — for a work permit for qualified non-EU citizens aimed at filling gaps left by an aging work force. The legislation now goes to parliament for consideration.
Critics say requiring people to speak basic German before they set foot in Austria would be an unreasonable barrier for people from poor, rural areas who can't afford or access German classes.
"I think this is a very clear form of discrimination of certain type of immigrants," said Barbara Liegl, head of the Austrian anti-racism organization ZARA. "I see massive disadvantages for specific groups."
Terrorism pushed Britain to start strictly enforcing a requirement for English-language competency for prospective citizens. Three of the 2005 London suicide bombers were native Britons of Pakistani descent while the fourth was born in Jamaica.
Since 2005, would-be citizens and permanent residency holders have been asked to prove their command of "Britishness" by answering multiple choice questions, in English, on British history, culture and law, from explaining the meaning behind the fireworks-filled Guy Fawkes Night, to knowing which British courts use a jury system.
Britain's government has pledged to dramatically cut immigration, and the language requirement is effectively a tool to put a cap on the number of newcomers, said Sarah Mulley, an immigration expert at the Institute of Public Policy Research, a London think tank.
Home Secretary Theresa May, who aims to cut immigration to below 100,000 by 2015, said language tests will help weed out those who don't plan to contribute to British life. She has singled out spouses seeking marriage visas to join English-speaking partners as a particular concern.
"There is a concern about long-established communities in the U.K. who are not well integrated, for examples, some of the Pakistani (and) Bangladeshi communities, and that's largely linked to language limitation," Mulley added.
But Mohammed Reza, a Pakistani on a student visa who is studying for Britain's citizenship test, saw language as a path to integration.
"If I'm wearing traditional clothing on my way to the mosque, everyone on the tube (subway) looks at me funny and gives me wide berth," Reza said. "It's hard to beat the stereotype, but speaking English is probably the most important thing for fitting in. That's why I read as much as I can and try to learn the lingo here."
In Italy's case, there has been a much weaker tradition of immigration and no major Islamic terror attacks. Still, a strong spike in newcomers in recent years — along with the very newness of the immigration phenomenon — has fueled a xenophobia surge and boosted the popularity of the anti-immigrant Northern League, Premier Silvio Berlusconi's main coalition partner.
In 1990, immigrants numbered some 1.14 million out of Italy's then 56.7 million people, or about 2 percent, according to the state statistics bureau, ISTAT. At the start of this year, foreigners living in Italy amounted to 4.56 million of a total population of 60.6 million, or 7.5 percent, with immigrants' offspring accounting for an ever larger percentage of births in Italy.
Amid the trend, Northern League leader Umberto Bossi's influence in government has grown ever stronger, his rhetoric often laced with a racist tinge. Bossi once referred to immigrants as "bingo bongos" and has suggested that migrant smugglers' boats off Italy's shores be fired upon with cannons.
Last year, a Northern League lawmaker proposed extending the language requirement to all non-EU citizens who want to open a store or other business in Italy, but the move died in Parliament.
Bossi "represents the extreme" in stands on immigration, said Manuele Bacci, 38, one of a fourth generation of butchers running a shop in Florence's cavernous San Lorenzo covered market. The other extreme, he said, is absolutely no restrictions.
"We need to take a step toward them and they need to take a step toward us," was Bacci's formula for integration.
But many immigrants say they'll be rejected no matter how hard they try to fit in.
Cojochru, the Moldovan nanny and caregiver, hoped obtaining permanent residence would help her bring her two teen children to Italy; they live with her sister in Moldova, where wages are among the lowest in Europe. She was skeptical that the language requirement would encourage integration.
Italians always "see me as a foreigner," an outsider, despite her years in the country and despite her flawless command of the local language, she said.
AP reporters Veronika Oleksyn in Vienna, Tamara Baluja in London, Ciaran Giles in Madrid, and Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm contributed to this report.