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Despite Anti-Foreigner Fears, Immigrants on Fringe of Italian Life

December 4, 1993

ROME (AP) _ Scarf pulled tight, Mohammed Nadur moves between lines of cars stopped at a red light. He doesn’t beg. He just holds the squeegee over windshields hoping the driver nods for him to go ahead.

Sometimes he’ll get a 1,000-lire note (about 60 cents). Most often it’s less.

″If I don’t do this, the alternative is do nothing,″ said the 25-year-old Tunisian immigrant. ″I look forward to the day I can be in Britain or America with a real job - a life.″

To escape the wind off the Tiber River, he and other windshield cleaners huddle near metal sheets used for political advertising. Nadur leaned against a poster for the mayoral candidate of the Italian Social Movement, or MSI, a rising neo-fascist party with a tone that sounds unfriendly to immigrants.

The MSI did well in first-round mayoral elections last month. In Rome and Naples, among the cities holding runoff elections Sunday, it took the largest bloc of votes and threatens to make poor immigrants feel even more unwelcome.

For most immigrants, the mainstream in Italy is a far-off goal. They occupy the fringes. Italians are the waiters, cab drivers, dishwashers and garbage men in a hiring system virtually closed to foreigners.

Stories like Nadur’s abound: North African fruit pickers in southern Italy, Egyptians selling trinkets outside Rome’s main train station, Poles trading tips at church on house-cleaning jobs.

The MSI tries to distance itself from neo-Nazi skinheads and other hate groups. But its stance is not one of openness either.

″Our policy is very simple,″ said MSI spokesman Niccolo Accame. ″We want to admit only those immigrants who can support themselves.″

Italy’s immigrant population is less than nations to the north, but it is growing. Nearly 930,000 foreign-born people legally live in this nation of 58 million, government statistics show. Illegal immigrants could push the number well over 1.5 million, activists say.

Moroccans form the largest group. Filipinos, Somalis and Libyans have significant communities.

″Who do we threaten?″ asked Anna Siminski, a Polish woman who came to Rome by bus looking for housework. ″Are we taking anyone’s job? I don’t think so. Why do Italians look at us like we’re a problem?″

Some Italians say they fear economic refugees from North Africa and former Yugoslavia could overrun Italy if the borders aren’t tightly controlled. Others worry that with the privatization of state-run companies, they will be competing with foreigners for work.

At a student march, one leather-clad skinhead made a cutting motion across his neck when asked how to deal with foreigners. His companions laughed.

″Italy has always been a place of emigration, not immigration,″ said Jousef Salman, head of the Committee of Foreigners in Italy, a private assistance group. ″There is no structure at all here for immigrants.″

Italy rolled back its welcome mat in 1990, changing laws to drastically cut the number of immigrations. People outside the European Community must get work visas before coming here and prove they have a job or relatives waiting.

In 1991, about 18,000 penniless Albanians crossed the Adriatic looking for a haven. Italy sent most of them back, with little public reaction.

Racial attacks are few, but have started to come with greater frequency, especially in economically depressed southern Italy.

In August, about 1,000 African farm workers fled the southern town of Stornara after residents attacked them when a house was burglarized. Days later, attackers shouting ″Dirty foreigner 3/8″ beat an Egyptian in Anzio.

Some cities have moved to drive out Gypsy encampments. In Rome, with its high rents, police chased dozens of illegal African immigrants from cave dwellings in October.

An illegal Romanian immigrant who peddles roses in Rome restaurants, and who would give his name only as George, said:

″I sometimes ask myself, ‘Would it be better in Britain or maybe Germany?’ The answer is yes, but I don’t have the money to go. I think I’ll be in Italy for a long time unless I get kicked out.″

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