On 10th August 2017, the Commune di Firenze launched the campaign #EnjoyRespectFirenze seeking to encourage some of the 16 million tourists who pass through the city annually to show more respect towards the city’s surroundings and residents.
Yet whilst street vendors do line the tourist hotspots, whilst fake Gucci and RayBan merchandise is sold, I want to argue that we should support these sellers and against Commune di Firenze’s ill-thought campaign.
For Italy has another ‘problem’ that is directly connected: the migrant crisis. Over the past four years, almost 600,000 asylum-seekers and migrants fleeing war, oppression, persecution and poverty have arrived on Italian shores. Many of these are housed in overcrowded and inhumane reception centres. Others choose to travel north independently, hoping to reach Northern European countries.
In Italy, asylum-seekers and migrants do not have the right to work. In the primary centres of reception, they are entitled to €2.50/day for personal expenses and thereafter €35/day. However, this allowance largely goes to pay for these centres of hospitality and support. For those wishing to move onwards, registering and receiving this allowance restricts their freedom of movement and, since the Dublin Regulation, leaves a paper trail that might mean being returned to Italy, as their country of arrival, by another government.
Finally, many migrants experience abuse at the hands of the authorities and consequentially prefer to travel under their own steam.
On the route to Northern Italy, with 16 million tourists annually, Florence offers the opportunity of raising enough money to provide for basic needs and to live with a level of dignity withheld from so many migrants and refugees.
Yet within this urban context and tourist economy, the connection between migrants desperate enough to have risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean and ‘illegal street vendors’ is forgotten. Rather than as victims of governmental and social neglect, these young men and women are vilified as parasites threatening the privilege of our capitalist economy and holiday culture.
One commenter on a TripAdvisor discussion thread wrote: ‘Just back from Florence and horrified to see how beggars and illegal traders…have multiplied… PLEASE visitors, don’t support them.’ Another echoed similar sentiments referring to the ‘fake junk they sell’, describing them as ‘a nuisance’ and commenting ‘I’d imagine many, if not all, don’t have papers.’
This language, and the language used by the Commune di Firenze, is almost worthy of comments made by Katie Hopkins in the Daily Mail about migrants back in 2016.
Yet even more sinister than the blatant stereotyping and racism of such comments is calling their presence a ‘nuisance’. That any human, desperately trying to acquire a few euros to provide for their basic needs, should be so called demonstrates at best a startling lack of education and at worst a terrifying degree of inhumanity.
Within a political system that withholds all opportunities for work, selling products on a street can provide one, relatively respectable means to survive. Indeed, what alternatives are left to individuals in need of food, shelter and hygiene if selling handbags is taken away? It’s surely at this point that one might resort to theft and other forms of petty crime.
Or are we protecting the interests of Louis Vutton, Prada and Gucci? And If so, how do we tolerate a society that safeguards brands over basic human rights?
Rather than 'feeding crime', the obvious truth is that discouraging potential buyers might force these 'illegal street vendors' to resort to other means.
In societies that value entrepreneurship and the humble start-up, what we are criminalising is not so much the illegal selling but, inhumanely, the people doing the selling.
It is the duty and responsibility of the Commune di Firenze to approach this issue - if indeed it is an issue - responsibly. At present, their response is remedial and overly-simplistic. Deeper questions must be asked to properly understand why these communities thrive in Florence, how they might be supported in alternate ways, and what the implications of this current campaign might ultimately have on the ‘crimes’ they so wish to prevent.