Milan, Italy – Migrants sit on green plastic chairs in a soundless waiting room. Volunteers call them over, one by one. On a coffee table, Italy’s populist politicians look up from the front page of an unread newspaper.
“Italy has changed a lot,” says Aboud, a 43-year-old Moroccan migrant who is “trying to obtain a leave” permit to remain and asks to be identified by his first name only.
He sits on one of the green chairs in the waiting room of Naga, a Milan-based volunteering association that offers free legal and health-care assistance to all migrants, regardless of their administrative status. Aboud used to live in Italy, and has just returned after spending seven years in Morocco. He noticed a difference.
“It’s a lot worse for migrants now,” he says. “Maybe it was the economic crisis, I don’t know, but there are no jobs, no help, and migrants suffer.”
It could get worse before it gets better: Italy will soon have a populist government that has promised a hard line on immigration. There are more than five million legal immigrants in Italy – some eight percent of the population – according to a report by the Institute for the Study of Multiethnicity (ISMU) Foundation, plus some 500,000 migrants without “leave” to remain.
“I’m a bit scared of them,” says Mery Romani, a 50-year-old Peruvian woman who works as a caregiver.
Her dream was to move to London so that her children could get a high-quality education. She has been trying to obtain Italian citizenship – her grandfather was Italian – but she might be forced to go back to Peru just to bring some documents over. And meanwhile, she will lose her leave to remain.
According to Naga President Pietro Massarotto, many others are worried.
“In the last few years, fear and mistrust have increased among the immigrants we help – especially the least protected categories,” he tells Al Jazeera.
On Wednesday, May 23, Giuseppe Conte was announced as Italy’s new prime minister, in a deal between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and the right-wing populist League (formerly campaigning as Northern League) that will send both parties to power.
League leader Salvini, the top candidate for the interior ministry, campaigned on a tough anti-immigration platform. During the election campaign, he vowed to put “Italians first” and waged war on “illegal” immigrants in his talks.
Before the election, he called Islam a “threat”, and on another occasion was filmed saying “we need mass cleansing here in Italy too, street by street, district by district, square by square, with forceful methods, if necessary”.
Salvini capitalised on Italy’s seemingly rising anti-immigration sentiment. A YouGov study last month found that Italians thought immigration was the most important issue facing the EU – more important than unemployment. In February, a far-right sympathiser shot and injured six black people in Macerata, in central Italy. In March, a 65-year-old Italian shot and killed Idy Diene, a Senegalese street vendor.
M5S and League have signed a “contract for government”, a deal on common policy targets for their government. The chapter on immigration features proposals to build more centres to keep immigrants in administrative detention; requesting that all mosques register with the state; demanding that the EU resettles asylum seekers in other countries through a quota system; “effective policies” to try and deport “illegal” immigrants and to reduce the number of arrivals.
Naga President Massarotto is critical of the contract. “It doesn’t talk about people and rights – only about immigration as a security problem to solve,” he says.
But most of all, Massarotto says the contract does not address the issues with Italy’s immigration system.
“If I had to make a reasonable prediction, I would say nothing will change,” he says.
The League’s press office is yet to respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on the allegations.
Business as usual
The policies proposed by M5S and League add to an already difficult situation for migrants in Italy.
Ibrahim Kone, a refugee who came from Ivory Coast through the Libyan route in 2011, says he likes living in Italy, but that refugees face dire economic straits. Many refugees he knows in Milan are forced into rough sleeping despite having asylum status, and meanwhile, they are barred from leaving Italy to find a job elsewhere – the Dublin regulation determines that refugees must remain in the country that first took their fingerprints.
“The problem here is that there are no jobs,” he says. “In other European countries, when you get documents you can find work, a place to stay. Here, if you have documents [as a refugee] you still have no work and you sleep outside. It’s not good.”
Nevertheless, the contract sets out to reduce funds for the asylum and immigration system in order to use them for deportations.
Economic migrants don’t have it easier. Many find work with Italian families, often as caregivers or cleaners, but the Italian immigration system makes it difficult for families to sponsor them to remain.
“The Italian immigration system creates illegality,” says Naga’s Massarotto.
He explains that normally, Italy would open the door to economic immigrants with “flows bills” and “sanatorie” (amnesties), but both methods are clunky.
In recent years, “flows bills” have prioritised seasonal workers and already documented migrants, while the last amnesty was passed in September 2012.
This means the economic migrants who arrived after that date – and their employers – have not had many chances to settle their administrative status and have plunged into illegality.
One of them is Claudia, a Brazilian woman in her late thirties who has worked in Italy as a caregiver since 2012. She concedes there are many immigrants in the country, but laments she has never had the chance to get a permanent leave to remain. She knows things might become even more difficult.
“I would like to talk to the person who writes the law,” she says. “I don’t know if I would be able to talk, because I would cry – I have suffered a lot already. I just want to stop being illegal, have the chance to remain through normal channels.”
After six years in Italy, she worries she might be sent back now. She is in Naga’s waiting room, among the green plastic chairs, the silence and the newspaper.
There’s also a sign. It reads: “Dreams come true if we believe in them.”