Immigrants abandon recession-hit Italy
In Rome's Chinatown, the Blue Skies travel agency is selling more one-way tickets to China than returns. The manager of the Mei Dan beauty parlour says Canada is the new dream, while the Golden Home property agency reports falling prices as immigrants sell up and leave.
"Many, many Chinese are going back home," says Sonia Fen, a restaurant owner and television celebrity who has lived in Italy for 21 years. "No business and no work. It is a terrible situation."
As quietly as they began to arrive in large numbers a decade ago, the Chinese community is slipping away, the many "for sale" signs posted on closed-up shops around Rome's Piazza Vittorio a testament to their exodus. Although Canada is a fresh destination for a minority, China's rapidly expanding economy is also beckoning.
The trend is not limited to the Chinese, and is apparent across immigrant groups in Italy - a grim consequence of its longest postwar recession, and a warning of how hard it will be for the country to start growing again.
Italy has awful demographics and needs immigrants, notes Antonio Golini, professor of sustainable development at Rome's Luiss university.
A low birth rate and a population that is pushing back the boundaries of longevity mean that there are fewer Italians and they are getting older, putting an unsustainable burden on the welfare budget.
Results of the October 2011 census released last month revealed a 0.5 per cent fall in the number of Italians in the previous decade.
The only age band that is increasing is of that from 70 to 80. Without an increase in resident immigrants, from 1.33m to 4.03m, Italy's population - a total of 59.4m people in 2011 - would have fallen.
"Economies don't grow without an increasing population, especially those of working age," warns Prof Golini.
According to the Ismu research institute, which analyses official statistics, 2011 was a watershed year of "zero growth" among immigrants. Data for the first half of 2012, based on residency registrations and cancellations, point to a possible decline.
Experts also note the unreliability of the data. Many foreigners leave Italy without cancelling their household registration, meaning they appear officially as still in the country. Gian Carlo Blangiardo, an Ismu demographer, says there might be as many as 800,000 such "ghosts". Immigration is, as usual, emerging as a campaign theme with voters going to the polls in late February.
Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is pursuing a populist tack as his centre-right party tries to woo back disaffected supporters, many of whom accuse immigrants of "stealing" jobs. He has warned that victory for the leftwing Democrats would lead to a "proliferation of gay marriages and an opening of our borders to illegal immigrants".
Mario Monti, who was appointed as prime minister in 2011 and is now campaigning for election as the leader of a centrist alliance, promises to address the problem of Italian women having too few babies. However, his 25-page "Agenda Monti" manifesto appears to be thin on social issues, making no reference to immigration policies.
In contrast, the Democrats.
who have a strong lead in polls, are taking the risk of campaigning with a promise to give citizenship to children of immigrants born in Italy.
Romanus Nwaereka, a Nigerian trade union activist in Rome, confirmed that his community was dwindling as people moved their families out of Italy, mostly to London and the US.
The economic crisis is the main factor. However, he also blames deep-seated racism, an issue given scant attention in Italy except in dramatic circumstances. Last week, Kevin Prince Boateng, a Ghanaian who plays football for AC Milan, stormed off the pitch with his team-mates in anger at "monkey" taunts by opposing fans during a friendly game. Mr Boateng is now considering quitting Italy.
Mr Nwaereka says: "Racist attacks are on the rise. The black community feels it more. It is a cancer in the blood of Italians. I am sorry to say it."
He is also critical of the government's immigration policies under Mr Monti. Arrivals were blocked last year because of the economic crisis, while an "indemnity" programme was offered to illegal immigrants to regularise their status. The window of six weeks was too short, Mr Nwaereka says, and the costs too high - in effect, €2,000 per person.
Ms Fen is aware that many Italians will not be unhappy to see the back of the Chinese community, which she says is often unfairly associated with organised crime and the black economy. "They will only miss us once we are gone," she says.
Ageing population Chinese lead other ethnic groups in exodus from country in search of greener pastures, writes Guy Dinmore