Snow falls thick and fast in Belluno, a town at the foot of the Dolomites, but a group of young men from across Africa works cheerfully to clean up the grounds of a military barrack that is to become a new cultural centre.
“It's the first time I've seen the snow; I love it and I love this project,” Nawaz Tashawar, a 35-year-old from Pakistan, told AFP with a shy grin last week.
From Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal, they have been posted to this industrial heartland of 35,000 inhabitants near Venice, earning their keep by working without pay in parks, kitchens and schools.
The government has been watching, and is expected to unveil plans on Wednesday to take the project nationwide, making it compulsory for those waiting for the verdict on their asylum requests to do community work.
A view over Belluno. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP
“We'd be at home doing nothing, we have no work, we'd simply eat, sleep,” said Paul Adjei from the Ivory Coast. “So we decided together to help the town, so it can move forwards.”
The question of what to do with the thousands of people arriving in Italy each year has proved divisive.
There are over 175,000 asylum seekers languishing in reception centres as they wait for their applications to be processed, which can take up to two years.
“Many cannot bear not doing anything,” Carlotta Sami, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told AFP.
Nazrul Poramanic works as a kitchen assistant. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP
“So making themselves useful for a few hours a day for the community that is welcoming them can be a good thing for them psychologically,” she said.
Migrants in Italy are allowed to start working two months after they lodge their application for asylum, but jobs are thin on the ground.
'Need to invest'
The government is expected to pledge next week to speed up the repatriation of those refused permission to stay, but has had difficulties sealing deals with many countries.
It will also warn regional councils across Italy that asylum seekers will be spread more evenly, with 2.5 migrants to every 1,000 residents – a plan that has been denounced by some mayors who say they have neither the resources nor the will to host outsiders.
Some of the newcomers help clear a disused military base in the town. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP
Belluno, which has a left-wing mayor but sits in the middle of anti-immigrant Northern League territory, is not complaining. The 100 or so migrants here have painted the town's railings and school gates and mowed lawns in parks under the supervision of local associations.
The project, launched in 2014, is based on the idea that autonomy can facilitate lasting integration. Instead of forcing asylum seekers to live in tent camps or large centres, they are given small apartments to share, and do their own shopping and cooking.
Mayor Jacopo Massaro laughs off the suggestion that he is the antithesis of Trump and other advocates of walls to keep migrants out.
“I don't feel like an anti-Trump, no! To put it simply, we thought that what with the difficulties Italy and Europe are experiencing, we all need to invest a little to resolve a problem that is bigger than us”, he said.
Mayor Jacopo Massaro. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP
A helping hand
The flow of people from the coasts of northern Africa to Italy – 170,000 in 2014, 150,000 in 2015 and 181,000 last year – has resulted in the biggest migrant crisis since World War Two.
But as Italy groans under the pressure, the idea of making asylum seekers work for free has angered those who say the country should be tackling its unemployment problem.
Nazrul in the kitchen. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP
Youth unemployment in the country stood at 40 percent in December. Massaro says that the migrants are doing jobs the town cannot afford, and that “we have not taken away work from anyone”.
Not everyone, however, is keen to work without pay.
“We cannot be left with nothing in our pockets, we need more. We need a job,” Adjei said.
By Kelly Valasquez