Immigrant Roma in Sicily: The Role of the Informal Economy in Producing Social Advancement

By Saitta, Pietro | Romani Studies, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Immigrant Roma in Sicily: The Role of the Informal Economy in Producing Social Advancement


Saitta, Pietro, Romani Studies


The article focuses on Mazara del Vallo, Sicily. It aims to show how a group of Roma from Kosovo, living in the area since the 1970s, has gained a livelihood through such enterprizing methods as music, improvized handicrafts and small-scale drug dealing. Their precarious situation is conditioned in large measure by the complex interplay of state regulations and the practice of local authorities. Nevertheless, these individuals have been able to exploit the ambivalence of the authorities as well as opportunities presented by the thoroughgoing informality of this south-western Sicilian city. Although a culture of poverty perspective would suggest that they are merely reproducing poverty from generation to generation, in-depth observation shows that the informal economy represents a paradoxical means for social advancement.

Keywords: Roma, Kosovo, immigration, Sicily, Italy, informal economy, social change, deviance

i. The framework

In this article, I discuss the experience of a group of Roma, composed of about 35 households and 120 individuals originally from Kosovo, who have been living in Mazara del Vallo (Sicily) since the 19705. In particular, I focus on the jobs that some of the members of this community perform, and show the role played by the informal economy in shaping the life of the Roma. I argue that, paradoxically, years of precarious, informal, illegal, dangerous, and poorly paid activities have allowed these immigrants to experience social advancement. Moreover, I argue that we need to reconsider informality and immigration because of the repressive and xenophobic tendencies that characterize contemporary Italy. These are inclinations that rightly cause concern among EU institutions and they should be answered with a call for human rights. Since 2001, in fact, immigration and public order have become two intertwined, inseparable, and frequent issues in the Italian political agenda. In 2008, an endless "safety campaign" targeting minor crimes committed by foreigners (in particular, Romanians and Roma) lasting several months produced dramatic ethnic backlashes. Several racist raids against Roma squatter settlements took place, and the Italian political forces, eschewing nuance, called for "zero tolerance" (evoking Rudolph Giuliani's methods and policies). The proposed arguments are that punitive policies sanctioning deviance from orderliness will reduce crime by creating broader cultural and behavioral changes, and that these policies will prevent Italy from becoming a destination for foreign criminals.1 To discuss the roles that informal and/or illegal labor markets play gives us a means to deconstruct current rhetoric on security and shed light on the complex functions of informal and illicit activities both for the illegal immigrants and for those who struggle to maintain their legal status. It is common for the immigrants in Italy to follow "oscillating trajectories" consisting of alternate cycles of regular and illegal residency. In other words, due to Italian legislation on immigration, which links permits to stay to employment contracts, and the prevalence of temporary jobs in the sectors occupied by most immigrants, foreign workers commonly lose (and regain) their legal status (Reyneri 2007).

In the transition from regularity to illegality, immigrants are likely to enter in illegal/informal circuits. If the conditions for a new regularization become newly available, the immigrant is likely to abandon illegal activities (either forever or until they are necessary again). In contrast, should these conditions not hold anymore for a very long time or if he/she confronts the control agencies and enters the penal system, the immigrant is likely to start a "full-time" criminal career (Sbraccia 2007). Accordingly, most of the informal and selfentrepreneurial activities performed by the Roma I studied have only a slight criminal impact, either because they are "irregular but legal" or because they are "victim-less.

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