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In northern Italy, immigrants unloved but for their labour

Padua — "First we viewed immigration as a problem, then we started to think of it as an opportunity, and now it’s a necessity," said Mario Cortella, a businessman in Italy’s wealthy northeast.

Yet while immigrants have become crucial to the region’s economic well-being, many face discrimination and worse.

Those from "outside the community" — that is, the European Union — have contributed greatly to the northeastern Italy’s economic boom, conceded Cortella, who heads a small bath accessories company called Kristallux.

"Our young people don’t want to do the jobs that immigrants are doing," he said.

But a law passed in July tightening immigration policy and making illegal immigration punishable with jail time, has put a sword of Damocles above the heads of immigrant workers, who have been more likely to be laid off amid the financial crisis.

"With this law making the illegal foreigner a criminal, if he loses his job he has to leave within a few months," said Said Nejjari, a Moroccan-born union representative.

"We’re talking about people who have lived here for years, who have children in school," said Nejjari at the steel mill where he works in nearby Verona.

"It’s a very sensitive problem," said Cortella, asserting that he did "everything possible" to avoid laying off immigrant workers despite the crisis to prevent them from being deported.

At the Kristallux factory, Albanian immigrant Senaj Enver was soldering towel racks.

"My story is the same for all immigrants. I fled the Albanian regime in 1993 for a better life," Enver said. "I arrived aboard a dinghy" with human smugglers.

"At first it was really hard," he said. "But now, I feel like an Italian, and I’ve bought a house."

Immigrant labour is crucial to the economy of the region.

In Padua province, the immigrant population has risen from two percent in 2000 to nearly 15 percent today. At the national level they make up 6.5 percent of the population.

Three in five of Italy’s some four million immigrants live in the north.

Employers aware of their importance have set up training programmes and language courses and helped immigrants find housing so that "they are not considered workers who should vanish after they’ve put in their eight hours," Cortella said.

Many immigrants, especially Muslims, face a hostile social environment.

The Northern League, which helped conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi return to power for a third time last year, is notorious for its anti-immigration stance.

Two years ago in Padua, a prominent Northern League figure unleashed a storm of controversy when he led a pig across the site of a future mosque.

The debate often centres on religion in the predominantly Roman Catholic, conservative region.

"We are in a secular state where church bells do not ring at certain hours so as not to disturb people," said Verona’s Northern League mayor, Flavio Tosi, sitting at his desk with a picture of Pope Benedict XVI behind him.

"Imagine a muezzin (the cantor who calls Muslims to prayer) five times a day. That’s not possible here," Tosi said.

Nejjari said he had the right to remember his roots.

"Integration is a two-way street. They say that the immigrants are closed, I say it’s the Italians who are closed," said Nejjari, adding that he was "disappointed that Italy, which has sent lots of manpower overseas, is not more sensitive to the problems of immigrants."

Mathieu Gorse/AFP/Expatica