Italian elections are scheduled for March 4, 2018, with the anti-establishment Democratic Party, the center-right Forza Italia and the Five Star Movement (M5S) contending to form the next government.
Immigration has become a pressing issue among many members of the European Union (EU), and Italy is no exception, with the upcoming elections reinforcing the need to address the matter.
While Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is banned from running for office after being convicted of tax fraud, his party, Forza Italia, has entered a coalition with the Northern League and the Brothers of Italy in the elections, which could provide him a seat at the table.
Berlusconi, for whom the elections might signify a tremendous political comeback, has drawn public attention to the problem of the huge migration influx into the country, calling it a "social bomb ready to explode in Italy."
"Immigration has become an urgent question, because after years with a left-wing government, there are 600,000 migrants who don't have the right to stay," said Berlusconi, pledging to deport illegal migrants. "We consider it to be an absolute priority to regain control over the situation."
The M5S, a party which represents the spirit of protest against Italy's political establishment, has supported Berlusconi's stance, with its leader Luigi Di Maio calling for deportations and putting "Italians First."
The nearer the election gets, the tougher the rhetoric becomes, although some officials believe, namely Salvatore Martello, the mayor of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, a hotspot for migrant arrivals, that these are mere words.
"When election time comes around, no one comes to Lampedusa," he said, referring to the candidates. "We're not afraid of immigrants as such, and by now arrivals are slowing down. Nevertheless, the frontrunners seem to find it inconvenient to come here during the campaign."
Ilvo Diamanti, a professor of political science at the University of Urbino, has explained the reason for the rise of anti-immigrant sentiments.
"The closer we get to an election, the more these feelings grow. I've seen this trend during last elections, and I note it now: public anxiety about immigration is rising to record-high levels. Almost one in two Italians feel afraid. Italian voters are concerned about jobs and unemployment first of all. But when it comes to the public sphere, immigration concerns are easier to be capitalized upon by populists. This is a short-term winning strategy."
Earlier this month, 28-year-old Luca Traini, who appeared to be an unsuccessful candidate in a local election from the anti-immigration Northern League party, was arrested for ostensibly targeting migrants in a drive-by shooting in the city of Macerata in central Italy. The incident left six people of African origin wounded.
While being interrogated by the police, Traini reportedly claimed that the shooting was a response to the murder of an 18-year-old Italian girl, whose dismembered remains had been discovered in two suitcases a week before the incident. The police detained a Nigerian man after they found several pieces of evidence, including the teenager's bloody clothes and a receipt from a pharmacy in the suspect's house.
According to The Express, the latest figures show that the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Italy doubled in a month to reach 4,800 in January.
Over 600,000 people have reached Italy by boat since 2013, boosting support for nationalist groups in the country. After the European Union reached an agreement with Turkey in 2016 to halt migrants arriving in the Greek islands in the Mediterranean, Italy once again opened its "Gates of Europe"; the Italian island of Lampedusa has been a major European entry point for migrants from Africa since refugees from war-torn Libya tried to cross the Mediterranean to reach Italy's shore.
Thousands of migrants from North Africa have died trying to enter the European Union through the notorious island of Lampedusa; the route from Libya to Italy is regarded as the deadliest of migrant paths.
Source: News Agencies, Edited by website team