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Police deploy against a protest opposing a neo-fascist party in Milan, Italy, on Feb. 24, 2018.

Matteo Bazzi/AP

From a distance, the seven-storey modernist block with blue-tinted windows looks like any other office building in suburban Rome. Get close, and its personality changes. Laundry hangs outside, next to the foyer. The smell of cooking wafts out a few open windows. A steady stream of African men and women come and go, many lighting up as they step outside.

The building is Palazzo Selam – Palace of Peace – so named by its residents. Until a dozen years ago, it was an administration building for Rome's second biggest state university, Tor Vergata. Today, it is Europe's biggest migrant ghetto, housing 1,000 or more asylum seekers, refugees and no-hope immigrants in offices converted into overcrowded mini apartments, with shared bathrooms, leaky pipes and broken plaster.

Palazzo Selam, and other ghettos like it in Rome, are not just known for deplorable living conditions. For many Italians, they have become the symbol of the never-ending migrant crisis; one, apparently, with no resolution. The sentiment is not lost among Italian politicians. Most Italian political parties are talking tough on immigration ahead of the March 4 vote. "These days, every party says its worried about security and immigration issues," said Francesco Galietti, chief executive of Policy Sonar, a Rome political risk consultancy.

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The leader of one big party, Matteo Salvini, of the xenophobic Northern League, says he would order mass migrant deportations if his party wins the election. "The only antidote to racism is to control, regulate and limit immigration," Mr. Salvini said recently.

In the Italian election, migration issues have wrestled their way to the forefront, boosting the popularity of the right-wing parties. Anti-immigrant slogans and rhetoric and attacks on migrants are grabbing the headlines.

Italy is not alone, of course. September's German election saw the rise of Alternative for Germany, the rabidly anti-immigrant party that won almost 13 per cent of the vote, depriving chancellor Angela Merkel and her conservative allies of a parliamentary majority. With Italy, and much of the rest of the European Union, obsessed with migration issues, centre-left parties are finding themselves in retreat; the polls say that Italy's ruling Democratic Party has little chance of forming a government.

At Palazzo Selam, the tenants are edgy as the election approaches. Abraham Alazar, 39, an Eritrean who has lived in the building for a decade and who makes a few euros selling handbags on the streets of central Rome, says he fears Italians are becoming ever less tolerant. "I don't like Europe and I don't like Italy," he said. "Racism is everywhere. I have heard Italians call me 'black shit.' "

While Palazzo Selam is grim, Mr. Alazar says nobody there has anywhere else to go. Their fear is forced eviction. While there is little sign that Palazzo Selam is at risk of being shut down – Mr. Alazar says doctors and priests are the only semi-regular visitors, not the police – they know it could happen any time. Last summer, the mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi, of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), demanded a "moratorium" on migrant arrivals as she tried to burnish her tough-on-immigrants credentials.

She then ordered at least three major evictions. One large building, next to Piazza dell'Indipendenza in central Rome, was emptied at dawn, with no notice given to the 800 Eritrean and Ethiopian squatters. With nowhere else to go, many of them simply slept outside. Five days later, riot police dispersed them with batons and water cannons, injuring more than a few.

Migration remains one of the dominant campaign issues, even though Italy seems to have more pressing concerns.

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Migrant landings via boat from North Africa, though still high, are in rapid decline. Last year, there were 119,000 arrivals, according to official figures, down from 181,000 in 2016 and 170,000 in 2015 (in recent years, most of the migrants have come from Syria, Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia, Mali and Gambia). The Italian economy is still in bad shape. While growth has returned after a near decade of recession or stagnation, the rise in gross domestic product is weak compared with other large European economies and unemployment remains high, at almost 12 per cent, with youth unemployment at 30 per cent. In the poor, southern half of the country, almost half of 15- to 24-year-olds are unemployed. Italian house prices have fallen for six years.

Yet the national economic health, or lack thereof, seems an afterthought among most of the candidates. "The campaign so far has been vocal, mostly focusing on non-economic issues such as the migrants, public order and the morality of candidates," Paolo Pizzoli, a senior economist at ING Research, said in a note this week.

When they do talk about the economy, some politicians insist that migrants are part of the problem, not the solution, arguing they compete with Italians for jobs. Mr. Salvini has said he would deport the 600,000 migrants with no legal status because "there are millions of Italians in economic difficulty."

For his part, four-time former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, 81, has been playing the migrant card endlessly, apparently to good effect.

The party he leads, Forza Italia, is one-third of the centre-right coalition that is leading the polls. The other two main parties are Mr. Salvini's Northern League and the smaller Brothers of Italy, another political group that has taken a strong anti-immigrant stance. Together, the coalition is polling at about 37 per cent, well ahead of M5S, at about 28 per cent, and the centre-left coalition led by former prime minister Matteo Renzi, leader of the Democratic Party, at about 27 per cent. (Mr. Berlusconi cannot stand for election because of a tax-fraud conviction that prevents him from holding public office until 2019.)

In a February TV interview, Mr. Berlusoni called immigration a "social time bomb ready to explode in Italy" and vowed to deport the illegal immigrants. "We will boost police presence and reintroduce the 'Safe Streets' initiative," he said. "Our soldiers will patrol the streets alongside police officers."

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His "social time bomb" remark was triggered by a wave of violence, some of it pitting fascists against left-wing activists, that has hurt both Italians and migrants.

In early February, a failed Northern League candidate, Luca Traini, was arrested after he allegedly shot five men and one woman, all from sub-Saharan Africa, in the central Italian city of Macerata (they all survived). The shooting spree came a few days after a Nigerian man was arrested in connection with the death of an 18-year-old Italian woman whose dismembered body was discovered near Macerata. About the same time in Palermo, Sicily, a leader of the far-right, anti-immigrant Forza Nuova (New Force) group was bound with tape and beaten by left-wing assailants, prompting Palermo mayor Leoluca Orlando to say: "We can't beat fascism with violence. We can't beat fascism with fascist behaviour."

Liberal Italians fear that the Italy's lurch to the xenophobic right will stoke already high racial tensions. Italy's L'Espresso news magazine, citing Interior Ministry data, says there is on average one neo-fascist attack on migrants a week.

In Rome on Saturday, with the election taking on a strong xenophobic tone, a large anti-fascist rally filled one of Rome's biggest squares. One of the thousands carrying anti-racism placards and wearing red caps that read "Make Italy anti-fascist again" was Angiolino Ravarini, 63, a retired hospital worker from Brescia, in northern Italy. "I'm not sure Salvini is a fascist, but he is a racist and that encourages fascism," he said. "In times of crisis, with high unemployment, it's easy to be a racist. There's no work in Italy and that's why he's popular and why the immigrants aren't."

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