A low wall separates Ventimiglia’s working-class neighbourhood from the banks of the river Roia, where in summer the waters recede to a sluggish trickle, leaving a wide expanse of stony riverbed and bushes.
Sitting on the wall, Mario Amarella gazed out at the hundreds of African migrants spread out across the stones, sleeping, praying, washing and waiting for smugglers they hope will take them into France, three miles away.
“After two years of handing out blankets, we are tired,” Mr Amarella, 63, who runs the local residents’ association, said. “There’s too many of them, and this is no longer a welcome — their human rights are being trampled on.”
Hundreds of migrants arrive in Ventimiglia every week in an attempt to reach France after sailing from Libya, but of those who make it across the border, 25,000 have been sent back by French police since the start of last year after being turfed off trains or rounded up on mountain paths.
That has turned the town into Italy’s Calais and made it the focus of a growing reluctance up and down the country to look after the 200,000 migrants now packed into reception centres since the arrival of 181,000 last year and more than 90,000 this year.
At Mr Amarella’s neighbourhood church, fewer local residents are showing up since the priest followed the Pope’s advice to care for migrants and started feeding and sheltering African families, single women and small children. This week, as dozens of migrants sat in the church’s car park, three elderly Italians attended a service inside.
“I don’t see an alternative to the migrants being here,” Father Rito Julio Alvarez, who is Colombian, said. “Some of the women we put up have been trafficked and we are trying to free them from prostitution.”
The town’s mayor does not agree, and is trying to transfer the women into a Red Cross-run camp between a railway goods yard and a flyover on the edge of town. Already home to nearly 500 migrants, mostly Sudanese, the site offers camp-beds under the flyover for the overflow.
“Three years ago, when migrants arrived on the train, locals were turning out to give them food and clothes,” Enrico Ioculano, the centre-left mayor, said. “But now people are stressed out and the smallest spark could provoke a reaction, whether it’s someone dropping litter or crossing the road in the wrong place. I want to avoid violence.”
He added: “The church doesn’t always understand that if you break the relationship between the migrants and the community, it’s hard to repair it.”
At the other end of Italy, the mayor of the Sicilian village of Castell’Umberto took matters into his own hands this month, erecting a barricade to stop electricians providing power to a hotel just as 50 migrants were housed there after being rescued off the Libyan coast.
Sicily’s enduring acceptance of newcomers may be further tested this autumn if the Five Star Movement steps up its attacks on migration as it campaigns to win the election in November for governor of the island.
Antonio Decaro, mayor of Bari and the head of Italy’s association of mayors, said that the mood was shifting among mayors across the country who have agreed to host migrants, only to see that many others have refused.
“The government has told us they will send us three migrants for every 1,000 residents, which means Cona near Venice, a town of 3,000, should have received nine. Instead they got 1,400,” he said. “The protests are not about racism but overcrowding.”
Italy is running out of patience with its neighbours (Tom Kington writes). Annoyance starts with the deal it struck with the EU to allow Brussels’ Operation Triton patrol vessels to unload all the migrants they rescue off Libya in Italy.
The same privilege was given to naval ships in the EU anti-smuggling operation Sophia, as well as charity rescue boats. The use of their ports has become a touchy subject with Italian voters after 93,000 migrants arrived this year, up 11 per cent on last year.
A further irritation is that the Dublin rules insist migrants request asylum in the first European country they are identified in. If they are identified in Italy then head to France to ask for asylum, they can be turned back under the treaty. After Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia wrote to Italy demanding it shut its ports to migrants this week, Rome tartly replied yesterday: “We expect solidarity from the EU, and we don’t take lessons and will not accept threatening words.”
In 2015 Italy was promised that 160,000 migrants from Italy and Greece would be spread across Europe. Two years on, only 7,621 have left Italy.