Rome, Italy – On a pale January afternoon, 17-year-old Ali* sits around a fading fire at a makeshift refugee transit centre.
Established in 2015, Baobab Experience is now located in a car park surrounded by deserted buildings in the Italian capital. More than 20 evictions have forced the centre to move several times.
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With the sun dipping below the horizon, Ali recalls finally arriving on Italy’s southern shores a month ago.
The teenager says he has already attempted crossing into France.
“We don’t want to stay in Italy,” he tells Al Jazeera, his reed-thin arms crossed on his lap. “Even people with [legal] papers here end up sleeping in the streets with us.
“They returned us to southern Italy, and we came all the way back here.”
With the general election coming up in March, observers warn that anti-migration rhetoric has been mainstreamed, bolstering far-right organisations such as CasaPound and Forza Nuova – parties that once occupied the political fringes.
“They want to keep everyone separate by ethnicity,” says Guido Caldiron, a Rome-based journalist and author of Extreme Right, a book about far-right and neo-fascist movements.
While the two groups are not expected to break the three-percent threshold to enter parliament, Caldiron argues that their anti-migrant crusades may have boosted their future chances in local and regional elections.
“They exploit the crisis to get consensus in certain areas by leading revolts against the presence of immigrants,” he says, likening the groups’ tactics to that of Golden Dawn, a neo-fascist party with a long history of political violence in nearby Greece.
“They go against the migrants … and then claim they were protecting [Italians] from an invasion of immigrants.”
Campaigns of hatred
In November, CasaPound employed ultra-nationalist and anti-migrant rhetoric to capture nine percent in municipal elections in Ostia, a seaside neighbourhood on Rome’s outskirts.
Simone Di Stefano, CasaPound’s candidate for prime minister in the upcoming elections, claims that that “problems come from too many immigrants being present… and there is a feeling that immigrants are preferred by the state over Italians”.
“Of course, new arrivals have to be stopped, but fake refugees should be sent back. They cannot find a job [and] a house, here [in Italy],” Di Stefano tells Al Jazeera. “It doesn’t make sense for them to stay because they’re not entitled to be here.”
CasaPound has staged anti-migrant protests in cities and towns across the country.
Last year, the fascist party sparked outrage when it plastered thousands of anti-migrant posters on the walls of several cities, among them Rome, Milan and Venice.
In October, Forza Nuova fuelled swelling xenophobia when it hung up posters of a black man ostensibly abusing a white woman.
“Protect her from the invaders,” the propaganda read. “It could be your mother, wife, sister, daughter.”
Yet, anti-migrant themes are far from being limited to CasaPound and Forza Nuova.
During the 2013 general election, the mainstream right-wing League (also known as the Northern League) secured 13 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 20 in the Senate.
In December last year, party leader Matteo Salvini told an election rally that if he won the upcoming vote, his government would provide many refugees and migrants with “a one-way ticket to send them back”.
The current government, under the leadership of former centre-left Prime Minister Matteo Renzi‘s Democratic Party, has also contributed to an increasingly hostile environment for refugees and migrants.
During his first eight months in office, Marco Minniti, the Italian interior minister, has overseen policies that led to an 87 percent decrease in arrivals.
As a result of moves by Italian and European Union officials, some 18,000 refugees and migrants were trapped in Libya, a war-torn country where many have been forced into open slave markets and where torture has become widespread.
Back in Baobab Experience, nightfall comes, and the camp swells with people coming for a hot meal and a place to sleep without harassment by authorities.
Around 125 people are in the camp in winter; volunteers and activists say that number often tops 500 in warmer weather.
Flames dance from the smouldering wood on the ground in front of a zigzag of tents, many of them dimly lit by mobile phones inside, others dark and quiet.
Inside a large white tent, a handful of young men charge their phones at a bundle of wires and outlets in the far corner.
Flags are sketched in marker up and down the tarpaulin walls – Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia, among others.
Fifty-year-old Andrea Costa, one of the founders of Baobab Experience, sits at a table of sheet wood and cinder blocks, describing the camp’s work as part of the “anti-fascist struggle”.
Baobab Experience provides immigration information, as well as food, clothing, medicine, language courses and tours of Rome.
Far-right groups have staged protests outside the centre and falsely accused organisers, who work on a volunteer basis, of making a profit off their work.
“We’ve had many problems with fascists, but fortunately, we responded to the fascist provocations by… insisting that we are not doing anything wrong and that big parts of the city are standing with us,” he says.
“We’ve handled it well, but we have to tell migrants to keep an eye out when they are coming and going, to be safe.”
Flicking cigarette ash to the pavement, he concludes: “We are very afraid because we are getting near the elections and it seems that all of the political parties … want to show they are tough on migration [in order] to get more votes.”
Outside, Ali sits next to the campfire under the twilit sky, ribbons of wraithlike smoke floating upward in front of him before disintegrating into the night.
He shakes his head in disappointment and slips on a weatherworn red beanie, pulling it down to his eyebrows.
The teenager repeats his wish to move elsewhere in Europe but says that, having given his fingerprints in Italy as part of the Dublin regulations, he fears being returned.
An austere expression on his face, he concludes: “We didn’t expect Europe to be like this.”
*Al Jazeera has withheld the surname of Ali, who is a minor, for his safety.