MILAN (AP) — More than 1,000 Italians on Tuesday threw a block party featuring a pasta lunch, a brass band and crafts to welcome some 80 migrants to the neighborhood in Milan, contrasting with rising anti-migrant tensions throughout the country including a protest at the barracks the night before.
Shouts of welcome went up as a small contingent of about 30 migrants came out of a recently repurposed army barracks for what was billed as the first welcome party of its kind in Italy.
"I feel happy," said 22-year-old Zakaria Abdellahi from Ethiopia, who arrived in Italy three months ago with his wife. "I feel like I am famous. Everywhere I look, they are taking pictures. I think I am Obama."
The previous night the mood outside the barracks had been less welcoming. About 200 people belonging to a right-wing party and an extremist movement protested, carrying banners that read "Italians first." Migrants peeked uneasily from the barracks' windows overlooking the piazza, before closing the shade.
It was the third such protest in recent days, with anti-migrant campaigners pledging more. Tensions over migrants have been rising in Italy amid persistent arrivals creating a crunch in the housing system in the months since Rome has stepped up its border controls under pressure from European neighbors.
Organizers of Tuesday's welcome event said that politicians on the right have been using the crisis in arrivals to stir up anti-migrant sentiment, leveraging Italy's economic stagnation to create uncertainty and fear. They decided on the welcome party after the city's plans to open the barracks to migrants became a political flashpoint, hoping that familiarity with the newcomers would help ease residents' reservations.
"It is very important that we meet each other and try to face the future in a different way. This is one reason for this event. The other is that politicians are trying to use the migrant issue to get votes," said Selana Tesfai, a founder of the Zone 8 Solitary Committee.
Migrant arrivals in Italy have topped 153,000 in the first 10 months of the year, close to that of all of last year although still shy of the record 170,000 in 2014. But with fewer heading north, Italy has had to come up with more migrant housing and aid - and more often has met local resistance.
Last week, dozens of residents of the small Adriatic clamming town of Goro blocked a road to prevent a dozen female migrants from being housed in the local hostel. The act was widely condemned, but received support from right-wing politicians.
Milan remains the city with the most migrant arrivals in Italy, largely because it is seen as a transit point, the city official charged with social policy, Pierfrancesco Majorino, told The Associated Press at the welcome party.
"In these months we have seen many small manifestations against (migrants) in northern Italy, even in Milan," Majorino said. "This is the first time there is a mobilization to welcome them. I find this very nice."
Organizers said they have approached the charity that is running the barracks shelter to create programs so the migrants feel at home, such as sporting events, cooking classes and a map of places in the neighborhood that want to help with the transition.
Since the crisis began on Oct. 18, 2013, 108,000 migrants have passed through Milan. From 2013-2015, just 2 percent of migrants requested asylum; that has now jumped to 75 percent, Majorino said. Currently, the city is housing 3,760 migrants.
The 300 new beds at the barracks will be filled in the coming days with migrants already in Milan shelters. The spots were added to prevent overcrowding and to keep migrants from sleeping outside during the winter months. Majorino said the city is now at capacity, and migrants who make their way there will be returned to the city where they first entered Italy, so the Interior Ministry can work out a balanced distribution.