In a crowded bus in Rome, a woman suddenly starts to yell, pointing to two young Arabs. ``They have guns under their jackets,'' she accuses.
The bus is detoured to a police station, and the two Arabs are thoroughly searched. They have no weapons. A false alarm.
``We are aware of quite a number of cases like this one -- cases of unjustified and irrational fear,'' says Mohamh Durra, the spokesman of the Arab League's bureau in Rome.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attack by Palestinians on Rome airport on Dec. 27, racial prejudice -- generally considered rare in this country -- has increased. The prejudice has been directed at Arabs and Africans, whose numbers have been growing here in the past few years.
``Il Messaggero,'' a local newspaper, carries frequent reports of acts of intolerance against foreigners: Arabs and Africans face discrimination, they are refused service, they are insulted. Immigrants who used to sleep in the central train station in Rome prefer now to find a less public shelter. They admit they are afraid. Anti-Arab death threats are scrawled on many walls in Milan.
Monsignor Luigi di Liegro, chairman of Charitas, a Roman Catholic organization involved in immigrant support, speaks of ``a real tragedy happening these days. People are not able to draw a line between immigrants and terrorists. The last terrorist attacks have triggered hatred and intolerence against minorities.''
Immediately after the airport massacre, the Italian government drafted a bill designed to crack down on undocumented immigrants. If Parliament passes the bill, as expected, illegal aliens caught in Italy will be sentenced to one year in jail. Immigrants whose visas have expired will face three months in jail.
Meanwhile, border controls have become tougher. At the port in Genoa, for instance, each day immigration officials are refusing entry to an average of 44 aliens coming off the boat from Tunisia. A month ago at the same wharf, the daily average was five.
The new immigration bill is a step backwards, says Bishop Silvano Ridolfi. His view is shared by many people -- in the Catholic Church and in trade unions -- who emphasize social justice for the immigrants.
``The governmental draft doesn't want to treat anybody as a criminal,'' responds Interior Minister Oscar Luigi Scalfaro. ``We needed some kind of guidelines for facing the immigration problem.''
Until a few months ago, immigration from Africa and the Middle East was not a major concern for Italy. But with the upsurge of Arab terrorism in recent months, including the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro, many Italians became concerned about immigration from the Middle East.
``Italy used to consider itself as an emigration nation. To be in the reverse position now is quite a cultural shock,'' says Beniamino Natale, an expert in immigration issues.
According to the Interior Ministry, foreigners in Italy number about 1 million (the total Italian population is about 55 million). Of the 1 million foreigners, 400,000 immigrants have visas, 400,000 are working illegally, and 200,000 are unemployed illegal residents.
``These 200,000 people could be used by everybody, by organized crime, like the Mafia, or by terrorist groups. They have nothing to lose; they are potentially very dangerous,'' says Deputy Interior Minister Raffaele Costa. ``This is the reason why the government had to intervene,'' he adds.
Charitas claims that the number of illegal aliens is much higher: 100,000 in Rome alone. Another 50,000 are in Milan, says Farid Adly, who broadcasts a popular weekly Arabic radio program in Milan.
Illegal immigrants appear to be scattered throughout the country. At least 5,000 Tunisians live in Mazara del Vallo, a small fishing town in western Sicily. ``Tunisians make up 25 percent of the fishing crews and two-thirds of the workers employed in the nearby vineyards of Agrigento,'' says Corrado Barberis, chairman of the Rural Sociology Institute.
``Generally, illegals are unskilled workers in building, restaurants, markets, cleaning enterprises, garages,'' says Nino Bassotto, a trade union representative. Unions denounce exploitation of immigrants, asserting that they are low-payed and often work without a contract, yet often serve as the backbone of small enterprises. That is why Italian authorities used to tolerate undocumented aliens, Mr. Bassotto says.
``Immigrants also accept the kind of jobs nobody wants anymore in our country,'' says Aris Accornero, a sociology professor at the University of Rome.
Many analysts are concerned that racial tensions will continue to rise. A forecast from the Ministry of Labor actually predicts that, by the end of the century, there will be 2 million immigrants in Italy, the majority of them illegally.