In the latest publicized attack on Monday, a young black Italian athlete was subjected to a drive-by assault while walking home in northern Italy — provoking an outpouring of condemnation from opposition politicians who accused Salvini of creating a climate of hatred.
Daisy Osakue, a 22-year-old discus thrower who was born in Italy to Nigerian parents, suffered injuries to her eye after an egg was thrown at her from a car. She said the damage to her eye in the attack left her needing several days of rest but should not impede her ability to compete in the European Championship in Berlin next week.
Italian PM Giuseppe Conte, speaking at a press conference Washington in the US, said he had contacted the athlete and that “she herself told me there seemed to be no racist background”.
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Two men hold a banner saying 'no more racism' at a march in February. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
But speaking on Monday, Osauke had said that she had not excluded a racist motive. “I don't like to use the racism card, but in this case, it is… I believe they were looking for a person of colour, a woman,” she said. “There are prostitutes working in that area and I think they mistook me for one of them.”
The 22-year-old has been studying in the US for the past few months and added that she felt she had returned to “a different Italy” and had previously been the victim of racist verbal abuse.
Meanwhile, a number of other suspected racist incidents have also coincided with the implementation of Salvini and the new populist government's anti-immigration crackdown since coming to power last month.
Over the weekend a Moroccan man was killed in a small village south of Rome after being chased by people who suspected him of robbery. The 43-year-old crashed the car he was driving and was beaten by his assailants. He later died in hospital.
And last week a 19-year-old Senegalese migrant was beaten by a group of youths who yelled racist slurs in the Sicilian city of Palermo.
'700 crimes a day'
“Any aggression will be punished and condemned. I will always be at the side of those who suffer violence,” Salvini said Monday, wishing Osakue a speedy recovery but omitting to mention the other cases.
Enjoying high popularity ratings among Italians, Salvini dismissed any idea of a “racism emergency in Italy” branding the claims as “nonsense”.
He received the support of his coalition partner, leader of the Five Star Movement and co-deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio.
“What is new is that the media is evoking cases of this kind even if the number of attacks has not changed… Whoever uses them against the government is not really tackling the problem of racism,” he told journalists.
Far from seeking to ease tensions, Salvini continued to hammer home his hardline stance on immigration.
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“There are about 700 crimes committed every day in Italy by immigrants, almost a third of the total number, and this is the only real emergency that I am fighting against as minister,” he said.
The most recent report from national statistics agency Istat shows that the average number of crimes committed in Italy by foreign-born people was 260. This makes up 30 percent of the total number, as Salvini said, but while he has repeatedly implied that a rise in migrant arrivals led to an increased crime rate, the proportion has remained relatively stable in the past decade.
The interior ministry says foreigners make up a third of Italy's inmates, over half of them Moroccan, Albanian, Romanian or Tunisian — though this proportion is largely due to the fact that they rarely meet the conditions for alternative sentences or arrangements.
The leader of the center-left Democratic Party Maurizio Martina wrote on Twitter: “Anyone who denies the spiral of racism that's growing in our country makes themselves complicit”, while his party colleague and MEP Cécile Kyenge, who was Italy's first black minister and experienced racist abuse, described a “climate of hatred” in the country.
'A lot of enemies'
Italian opposition parties and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) amplified their calls for tolerance on Monday due to the uncompromising stance on immigration.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella has also spoken out, condemning last week an air rifle shooting which accidentally injured — according to the perpetrator — a young Roma girl who was walking with her mother.
“Italy cannot become a wild west where part of the population buys a gun and shoots from a balcony hurting a one-year-old girl, destroying her health and her future,” he warned.
Salvini's anti-migrant discourse has also drawn criticism from some of Italy's Catholics, summarized last week by the front page of a prominent Catholic magazine Famiglia Cristiana.
The headline “Vade retro Salvini” played on a medieval Catholic phrase likening the hardline minister to Satan. But Salvini, used to a constant barrage of criticism, was dismissive.
“A lot of enemies, a lot of honour,” he wrote on social media on Sunday, adding an emoji blowing a kiss.
The phrase, famous in Italy, is a variant of a slogan of war-time fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Its use by Salvini on the anniversary of the former leader's birthday caused a stir across the country.