Vu Cumpra’

Thoughts on Illegal Immigrants in Italy – August 2012
Vu Cumprà – a Contentious Phrase
Vu Cumprà or Vu Compra’ is the generic description given to illegal immigrants in Italy, especially those that ply their wares on the beaches and street corners.
The phrase is considered by some people to be offensive and racist, see the discussion on But the Italian newspapers use it without apology, and I don’t think that most people who use the expression do so pejoratively. I have no idea what the immigrants themselves think of that description. I would be pretty sure that no one has asked them.
From Il Messaggero Marche, 18 July 2012. Porto Recanati, Lega Nord against the vu cumprà. PORTO RECANATI – Junk sales and complaints under the beach umbrellas of Porto Recanati and Civitanova: the customers are being targeted. One way of looking at the vu cumprà on all the local beaches and the blankets laid out along the promenade of Porto Recanati of an evening and on the street corners of Civitanova. Many tourists, furthermore, complain about the persistent presence of traders and the Lega Nord councillor Attilo Fiaschetti is calling on the relevant authorities. “The vu cumprà are becoming part of the street furniture” emphasises the councillor “but it is necessary to tackle those who buy from them”. The party spokesman is not criticising the forces of law and order but blames the problem, including that of prostitution at the southern entrance to the town, on the degradation of the ex-school Gramsci. Notwithstanding the checks of last week everything has returned to as it was before. “The situation regarding prostitution in the area of the pine trees” explains Fiaschetti “is a scandal to the open sky [literally translated – nice phrase] and is not to be tolerated any longer. We need higher fines on those who are in charge of this. Gramsci, furthermore, is a hiding place”. The town councillor responsible for security, Carlo Sirocchi, however, confirmed he is on the case: “I have asked for further checks from the forces of law and order, soon there will be video cameras at the south whereupon the illegal vendors I believe will diminish”. [Oh yeah?] [And note that a large proportion of street prostitutes in Italy now are eastern-European, and unlikely to be connected to the vu cumprà – the Lega Nord man is having a disjointed rant]
Vu comprà apparently originates from a version of Naples dialect that equates to the standard Italian vuoi comprare?, ‘you want to buy?’ and refers to the first phrase in Italian that the African street and beach traders learn to say.
Probably no one knows how many people there are who have entered the country clandestinely, or not so clandestinely on boats from Libya, and are now effectively stuck there, unable to find any work, and reduced to trying to hawk trinkets. There are many, many thousands.
Buying beads from the vu cumprà, on a street corner in Ancona.
To me this has a 19th-century feel about it, with very poor people, often immigrants, struggling to make a crust and selling bits and pieces – in earlier times it was things like matches and apples, now it is sunglasses, handbags and beads – on street corners, occasionally getting moved on by the police.
No one ever recorded much about the 19th-century destitutes, and no one is doing much to find out about their 21st-century equivalents either, though they certainly aren’t hard to track down.
While not for a moment wishing to exchange my life with any of theirs, there is something a bit fascinating about having left behind everything and in effect burned the bridges that enable you to go back.
And what is going to happen? The situation cannot continue any more than could the match-sellers of old. In the past, wars and the war effort probably did as much as anything to change the lives of many itinerants. Now it is likely, I think, to be pressure to move on, out of Italy, and into Germany, Britain and the northern-European well-off nations. That pressure is going to have to blow at some point, possibly accompanied by a certain amount of violence.
Meanwhile, Italian government ministers occasionally make noises about how they are going to ensure that all these people get sent home, which is ridiculous, that would be a major undertaking beset by all manner of difficulties, not least the great diversity of countries that the immigrants emanate from.
And the other countries of Europe, especially Britain where the anti-immigration protagonists are particularly vocal, seem to be unaware of the issue. I suppose that none of the shouters and huffers has seen the extent of the influx. But it is going to effect them sooner or later, it’s bound to, and when it does I shall say to them, I’ll say, don’t you come crying to me, it was you that ignored what was staring you in the face for so long.
Personally, I would say that the sooner that many of the immigrants can get assimilated and working in whichever part of Europe that work can be found for them, the better. Many are desperate to find work and to help support their families back home. I know that will cause a lot of people to huff and puff, but a lot of huffing now is better than a lot of trouble later.
One African’s story: see Ricky the African.
See too, African Market.


  1. I couldn't beieve the extent of those people when I went to Italy in 2012. They are EVERYWHERE and are selling illegal counterfeit items in broad daylight. It just blew my mind that such a thing would happen in the open, especially in the middle of the tourist centres of historic cities. I'm amazed that the authorities allow it to persist in such places, because surely they'd like foreigners to get a positive image of their country? Tourism plays an extremely important role in Italy's economy, so is this not of concern to them?

    There are ones in Piazza del Duomo in central Milan who are extremely persistent and aggressive, who try to grab your wrist and put a "free friendship bracelet" on it, which despite being "free" they'll then demand a €10 donation to "help poor children in Africa", then won't leave you alone until you give them money. Giving the bracelet back is not an option! I had been warned of those people and took evasive action to avoid them, but my action seemed to make them only more determined, and one of them started following me, shouting "my friend", "amigo" and multiple variations in different languages before finally giving up as I approached the entrance to the Duomo. But it was very unpleasant. A quick Google search on this subject yields evidence that this has been happening here since at least early 2007, and yet it was still going on some 5 years later. Where are authorities to deal with this?

    There are others which were equally aggressive in Pisa.

    From what I can make out, the majority of those people come from Senegal and they are also present in Spain, known by British tourists as "looky looky men". I have also seen them in Corfu Town in Greece. I have *never* seen them in any northern European countries.

  2. No comment rich man.