Milan, Italy   - Italy  has been wracked by tension over the past few months as the outskirts of its  biggest cities - Rome, Milan, Turin, Naples - have witnessed boisterious and burgeoning street protests against immigration.

Rising unemployment, a continuing economic crisis, growing anti-immigrant sentiment, and a new political alliance between the Northern League and Casa Pound - two populist right-wing parties - have fuelled the demonstrations. 

Perhaps the most worrisome episode took place in Tor Sapienza, a working-class neighbourhood in southern Rome. Last October, locals protested for three days in front of an immigration centre hosting North African and Eritrean refugees, after a report of an attempted rape by a group of immigrants. The backlash was so fierce that the city was compelled to move some immigrants living at the centre to a different area.

" Sandro ", a protester who requested that his real name not be used for fear of reprisals, said the demonstration had nothing to do with racism or xenophobia.

" I have always voted for left-wing parties and have nothing against anyone, " he told Al Jazeera. " What I am tired of is the state of neglect the whole area has been left to by the municipality and politicians. " He said he fears if nothing is done, the outskirts of Italian cities, which have large immigrant populations, could witness the same upheavals that shook Paris in 2005.
A boat overcrowded with migrants in the Mediterranean Sea [AP]

According to data released by Istat, Italy ' s national statistics service, immigrants make up eight percent  of the country ' s population. Although this is lower than the ratios in other European countries such as France (12 percent), Germany (9 percent), and the UK (15 percent), Italy ' s economic woes and lack of infrastructure cause inflated perceptions among Italians about the number of immigrants.

study by UK-based pollster Ipsos Mori  found the average Italian believes that foreigners represent 30 percent of the total population, and that 20 percent of those are Muslim - whereas in fact just four percent are. 

'Explosive situation'

"T he problem is that immigrants are placed to live in a context where poverty is already a reality and basic infrastructures are often missing. And you simply can ' t do that without negative consequences. The government should know better, Rita Bichi, a professor of sociology at Milan ' s Universita '  Cattolica, told Al Jazeera.

Sixty-five-year-old Caterina Sansoni agrees. She lives in an apartment near Abbiategrasso, on Milan ' s southern outskirts. " The city can ' t send all the immigrants to an area where problems already exist, " she told Al Jazeera. " It creates an explosive situation. "

Last month in Milan's Corvetto area, the  police evicted a number of residents  - immigrants as well as Italians - from apartments where they had been squatting, while outside on the streets activists physically confronted the police.

"Mohammed", a 38-year-old from Morocco who asked to remain anonymous, lives in an occupied house in one of Milan's many public housing blocks. He has been squatting there for almost three years, but lives in fear that the police will soon kick him out.

Roberto Maroni, the president of the Lombardy region where Milan is located   and a member of the Northern League, recently announced that police will evict the inhabitants of 200 illegally occupied apartments each week.

"I live here with my wife, a kid and a baby that is about to be born," Mohammed  told Al Jazeera. "I have worked very little in the past eight months. If they kick me out, I have nowhere to go."

'Patching' Italy's cities

Despite the worsening situation, some have been crafting their own solutions independently of the government. 

Italian architect  Renzo Piano , who is also a member of the Italian Senate, has used his senator's salary to pay six architects  - two in Turin, two in Catania, and two in Rome - to work on projects that he defines as  rammendo , or "patching".

Roberto Corbia, one of the architects chosen by Piano, explained the project focuses on "building on what has already been built; making [buildings] more efficient, easier for the local population to use and interact with".

Corbia is working on projects in the Librino neighbourhood of Catania, a city in Sicily, where unemployment is sky-high, criminal organisations often operate with impunity, and where last September,   an unemployed man set himself on fire  out of desperation. 

Calm - but for how long?

One of these projects involves revamping an abandoned lot in Librino, building a sports field and a pathway connecting it with a nearby high school that had lacked sports facilities.

Piano's efforts are not isolated. Several grass-roots organisations across Italy have launched in recent years, aiming to fill the widening service gaps left by austerity prone local governments. Among the most successful of these is  Retake Roma , a non-profit group whose goal is to  clean neighbourhoods of graffiti , trash and vandalism.

"In the neighbourhood things are now calm, but I don't know how long the situation will stay like this because there are still no jobs, and the neighbourhood seems to have been abandoned to itself once again,"  said Abel, a 40-year-old Eritrean man who arrived in Italy two years ago.

Interestingly, Sandro - the anti-immigration protester - had a similar point to make.

"The mayor of Rome came [to the neighbourhood], the city sent people to trim the trees, and they finally repaired the street light: a small gift to keep us at bay. Nothing more, nothing long-term. As usual."

Source: Al Jazeera