The reception center for asylum seekers is called Il Sorriso (The Smile), but no one there is smiling these days. The center, in the Rome neighborhood of Tor Sapienza, has been under siege for a week, with daily protests by local residents calling for its closure. On November 13, municipal authorities transferred all the children living in the center for their own protection after groups threw crude Molotov cocktails, bottles, and rocks at the building two nights in a row.  

Video footage of the ugly protests has prompted significant debate about the root causes. Whether or not, as has been suggested, organized extremist groups are behind the worst of the violence, it’s clear that many neighborhood residents are channeling anger over urban degradation, crime, and Italy’s economic crisis.

These and other episodes of tension over asylum reception centers also reflect Italy’s failure to host and integrate refugees adequately and its tendency to resort to ad hoc, emergency measures. Increased numbers of asylum seekers over the past year, in large part due to Italy’s laudable rescue efforts in the Mediterranean, have exacerbated already chronic problems. Italy needs to upgrade its reception capacity and invest in better integration efforts.

Labelling Tor Sapienza residents as racists is unhelpful and ignores the countless acts of welcome and generosity shown towards the asylum seekers. But ignoring racism is also dangerous. In the past, Italian authorities have failed to consider the racist motivation behind harrowing episodes of mob violence targeting migrants in Rosarno in 2010 or targeting Roma – a deeply vilified minority in Italy – in Naples in 2008. This time round, law enforcement should diligently investigate the violence, particularly the suggestions that some of those involved are linked to extremist groups, and carefully document evidence of racist motivation.

Local and national authorities should also counter forcefully the intolerant rhetoric that has accompanied not only the events in Tor Sapienza but is a mainstay of public debate about immigration and minorities in Italy.

Today, Rome Mayor Ignazio Marino suggested that the Tor Sapienza center could be converted into a shelter only for women and children. This might make sense if it responds to a genuine need. But the authorities should not cater to the “not in my backyard” mentality.

Instead of speaking of asylum seekers and refugees as burdens, Italy’s leaders should emphasize how much they can contribute to Italian society. Instead of speaking of avalanches or tsunamis of asylum seekers overwhelming Italy, they should remind Italians that countries like Lebanon and Turkey each host far more refugees than the entire European Union put together. With effort, Italy can design and implement a long-term strategy for providing genuine refuge to those fleeing war and persecution in a way that involves, rather than antagonizes, local communities.