RIVADOLMO, Italy (AP) — The community's hostility is veiled, but palpable. When the young migrants from Nigeria and Gambia venture away from their house in this hilltop idyll south of Padua, they say neighbors come out and snap their photos in a gesture of intimidation. They have been pressured to stop using the local soccer field, accused of taking the pitch away from Italian kids.
Housing migrants who continue to flood Italy, many risking death in Mediterranean crossings, has become a contentious campaign issue in Italian regional elections set for Sunday. It has unleashed a wave of anti-migrant resentment that Matteo Salvini, the up-and-coming leader of the populist Northern League, has both benefited from and fomented.
Salvini's anti-immigrant, anti-Europe party is poised to be the second largest vote-getter in seven regional votes this weekend, including the wealthy Veneto region where Padua is located. The provocative leader has backed Padua's Northern League mayor in his opposition to a program by Rome officials to seek private homes to shelter the migrants.
"We don't know who we are putting next-door," Salvini told The Associated Press by telephone from Sicily, where he was campaigning. "There are no controls, no guarantees, not even for health. ... It is a problem of safety and cohabitation. There are 4 million Italians without work, and millions more living under the poverty level. I don't think we can give housing to half the world."
He is unapologetic about fears that such rhetoric could encourage racism. He says Italy's 5 million legally resident migrants are "welcome" and noted that Britain's conservative Prime Minister David Cameron won elections in Britain "saying he wouldn't even take one immigrant," referring to Britain's refusal to take part in a proposed EU quota system for distributing asylum-seekers around Europe.
Salvini hopes to ride the anti-establishment wave evident in recent elections in Poland and Spain. He called the results "a slap in the face for Europe, the common currency and migration." The Northern League, under Salvini, is seeking to become the rallying point for Italy's nationalist right, venting its anger at Brussels in a bid to widen its appeal beyond its traditional secessionist base with roots in northern Italy. Despite his attempt to moderate some of the Northern League's past rhetoric, particularly against southern Italy, he still riles public opinion in campaign stops across the country.
Political analysts say the major electoral concern among Italian voters remains the economy, as the country weakly pulls itself out of recession. But in Veneto the race between the Northern League's incumbent Gov. Luca Zaia and the Democratic Party candidate Alessandra Moretti is also being shaped by the emotional migrant issue. Italy has been struggling to deal with the huge inflows of migrants, with more than 26,500 landings this year through the end of last month, on top of last year's total of 170,100. And the Northern League has found fertile ground for its message in Veneto, once the powerhouse behind the Italian economic miracle of the 1960s, which now has fallen on hard times.
"The number one priority is lack of jobs, which generates frustration and anger, the desire for change, along with indecision and polarization," said Roberto D'Alimonte of Rome's LUISS University. Experts are projecting high levels of absenteeism.
Polls indicate the results could catapult the Northern League to second place in the overall regional vote count, behind Premier Matteo Renzi's Democratic Party, which would make the Northern League the main opposition party. It would allow Salvini's camp to overtake Beppe Grillo's anti-establishment 5-Star Movement as the principal lightning rod for disaffected voters. But Salvini is setting his ambitions higher: He wants to take command of Italy's center-right — which has suffered a void as former Premier Silvio Berlusconi has found himself crippled politically by a tax fraud conviction.
Europe was shocked into devising a plan to accommodate the migrants, and ease pressure on Italy, after more than 800 people were believed to have drowned an April shipwreck. The result is a proposed national quota system aimed at helping Italy and Greece manage the massive influx of migrants — and oblige reluctant EU partners to share the burden.
But the Rev. Luca Favarin, who runs the Percorso Vita charity, which has been trying to find private homes for new arrivals in Padua province, says the province took in just 500 new migrants last year, less than half of its 2014 quota set by the Interior Ministry, despite the availability of EU funds. He is currently working with the national prefect in Padua on getting approval to put migrants in 23 homes on the grounds that keeping migrants in smaller groups spread through the territory created a more familial environment and made it easier for locals to get to know them, and help them with their trauma.
He acknowledges that the plan — by spreading migrants over a wider area — "makes more people unhappy."
In Rivadolmo, a total of 22 migrants are living in a spacious house that belongs to a man serving prison time for pedophilia. Favarin said the reaction of neighbors has been "borderline racist."
Amadu Jatta, a 30-year-old Gambian, said he was photographed as he walked down the street earlier this week. He said he believed it was for posting on a community Facebook page that includes comments, often derogatory, on the migrants' presence. The page includes complaints that the migrants had taken over the local soccer field, displacing a group of 11 and 12-year-olds who had been playing for an hour. The entry is titled "Here is the integration of our ... political refugees!"
"Maybe they are against us," Jatta said, adding that the photo-taking made him uncomfortable. "We are not afraid. We don't do anything. We just walk."
Favarin said he also has been abused by residents: "When I go down the street, people spit on me, they accuse me, they use vulgar language."
The migrants pass the time waiting for their asylum applications to be processed, learning woodwork and tending a small garden. They make occasional trips to the police station to process their requests, and to the train stations to meet newcomers. Sometimes they go on cultural outings. Favarin said they have created no disturbances during their stay.
"We believe that welcoming the migrants is a value that you cannot debate," Favarin said. "You can debate the methods, you can debate the timing and the resources, but taking them in, from a human and Christian point of view, cannot be a matter of debate."