MACERATA, Italy, Feb 23, 2018 (BSS/AFP) – “There’s starting to be too many of them,” says a young man at a bar in the central Italian city of Macerata.
He does not wish to give his name, but the “them” he talks about are migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.
The issue has dominated political headlines in Italy ahead of parliamentary elections next month.
“If you walk in certain areas at night, you see them in groups. You can’t help but be scared,” the man says.
Fear of immigrants — and of a far-right anti-immigrant backlash — has overshadowed election discussions about the economy ahead of the vote on March 4.
People in Macerata know the conflicting arguments better than most.
At the end of January, the body of 18-year-old Pamela Mastropietro was found dismembered in two suitcases near the city.
A Nigerian man was arrested. Days later a far-right activist, Luca Traini, went on a two-hour shooting spree targeting African migrants in Macerata, injuring six.
– The happy migrant –
The events set off waves of condemnation, protests and counter-protests.
Right-wing campaigners used the death of Mastropietro to promote their anti-immigrant message.
Within days, two small but headline-grabbing demonstrations from far-right groups in Macerata garnered headlines. Then thousands of anti-fascists descended on the city.
“It was a bolt from the blue for us, you know? We’re not used to this sort of thing,” says Laura, a mother of six-year old twins, outside her children’s school.
“Macerata is a really peaceful city and it’s been hard to deal with what happened.”
Madu Cisse, a migrant from Mali, was also surprised.
“I wouldn’t have ever expected something like that to happen here,” he says.
He made the perilous Mediterranean crossing from Libya to the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2011. He moved to Macerata and became a pastry chef.
“I’ve been in Macerata pretty much since I arrived in Italy and I’m happy here.”
– Support for attacker –
Protests over large-scale immigration have rocked Italian politics since the beginning of the migrant crisis.
More than 690,000 migrants have come to the country by boat since 2013.
But the numbers have been falling. After the EU agreed a controversial deal with Libya to intercept migrants, Italy received 119,000 migrants by sea last year, a third less than in 2016.
The ruling centre-left Democratic Party welcomed that reduction. But immigration remains a hot political issue.
Polls indicate it is an important subject for around 30 percent of voters.
Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has pledged to deport 600,000 illegal immigrants if his coalition of Forza Italia and two far-right forces wins power.
“Lots of people say positive things about Traini,” the gunman who admitted to shooting migrants,” says one staff member at a local bar in Macerata, who wished to remain anonymous. “It’s very common.”
Giancarlo Giulianelli, the lawyer representing Traini, told AFP he has received an “alarming” number of messages in support of his client’s actions.
He feels those are only “the tip of the iceberg”.
– Anti-immigrant backlash feared –
As well as the national election result, eyes will focus on the vote in Macerata to see if far-right parties gain from their pledges to “fix” Italy’s migration problems.
Macerata has taken in a similar number of migrants to other Italian cities.
Just over nine percent of its 42,000 residents are foreign nationals compared to 8.3 percent nationally, according to the National Institute for Statistics.
But analysts would not be surprised if the violent events of recent weeks lead to an anti-immigrant backlash.
Far-right parties across Europe have enjoyed a surge in recent years, from Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France to the anti-migrant Alternative for Germany to Italy’s own Northern League.
Italy’s anti-establishment Five Star movement has also seen a big boost in support.
“I personally have never had any problems in Macerata. When people see me around they say hello,” says Mohamed, a Somalian who arrived in Italy in 2009 and works in a petrol station.
“Everything depends on how you behave. If you behave correctly with people they will react well to you.”
But for minority groups living in the city, the election will be a test which risks confirming their worst fears.
“People tell you to go back to Africa,” says Gennaba Diop, a 23-year-old born in Macerata to Senegalese parents.
“The first time someone called me nigger I was 10 years old and it was by a boy and girl the same age as me. Since then, if anything, things have gotten worse.”