Concerns over an influx of gypsies are rife in Switzerland ahead of a February 8 vote to extend a labour accord to new European Union members Romania and Bulgaria.
swissinfo visited a Roma camp on the outskirts of Milan, in northern Italy, where members of the ethnic minority live in appalling conditions on the fringes of society.
"It is not the land which forces us to stay, but it is man who clings to the land," says Mirko, an Italian Roma. For years he and his family have been living on the southern outskirts of Milan.
Mirko has always had a steady job, no criminal convictions and no debts. Yet last week he became the subject of a massive swoop by Italian security forces.
He says he couldn't believe his eyes when his property was searched. Authorities took his fingerprints and those of his children and police interrogated him.
Mirko who believes in the family, respect and commonality, felt deeply humiliated.
The Roma – including those who have settled – have a very special relationship to the land, defined by a complex array of factors and traditions.
Maurizio Pagani and Giorgio Bezzecchi of the non-governmental organisation Opera Nomadi, the country's largest Roma organisation, are familiar with the mentality and values of the people.
The two experts have made it their daily business to fight prejudice in a difficult political climate while battling inefficient authorities and a general lack of welfare services.
Pagani and Bezzecchi try to defend the legitimate rights of the gypsy community and to ensure that Roma are treated as human beings and not as objects in the welfare system.
Approaching the Bovisa neighbourhood outside Milan on the way to visit a little make-shift camp under the Bacula bridge, the Roma's advocates issue a warning.
"We don't know whether it will be possible to go near, talk to people and take pictures."
The winter scene is ghostly – shopping trolleys lie on the muddy ground, which is littered with broken toys, empty bottles and excrement.
The two small Roma settlements are situated amid piles of rubble. Upon moving closer to the site, Pagani and Bezzecchi indicate that the inhabitants are willing to meet with journalists.
There is a young woman with vivid blue eyes and a smile marked with two golden teeth. Her son, Ulisse, is by her side and her husband Daniel prepares for his picture to be taken.
Out of a dark and damp passage between concrete blocks appears Anghel. He holds three suitcases and his mother, dressed in rags, accompanies him. Her face is marked by hardship and anger.
Anghel explains why he has packed up his possessions. "We're moving to the other side," he says. "The place here is infested with mice. It is too dangerous for my little brothers."
Anghel has a job and earns €800 (SFr1,188) per month. He would not be here if he was able to find work in Romania.
"Do you believe I like living here in these conditions?" he asks. He looks around the patchy sheds made of bits of wood, plastic and cardboard. There is no toilets, no light and no electricity. Some of the people here have gas cookers but are lucky if the devices function.
"These Roma settlements are not just social dumping grounds as many people would suspect," Pagani and Bezzecchi wrote in a recent report.
"The camps, with their internal network are possibly the only antidote against social isolation," they say. But they acknowledge that the future for most young people is bleak. They are confined to the sidelines of society.
In the current political and social climate, racist tendencies have become more obvious both in Italy and Switzerland.
For many, the Roma serve as scapegoats for all those who are concerned over an influx of foreign labour on the job market.
But experts say the presence of Romanian gypsies in Italy is not the result of the EU labour accord. They also point out that the crime rate is linked to the poor legal standing of Roma in Italy.
In Switzerland, the non-governmental Refugee Council has mounted a campaign to defend Roma against allegations by rightwing political parties.
During a tour of the camp, a man named Luca appears to have emerged from nowhere. The 35-year-old giant talks a lot and he has a booming voice. Suddenly the sheds come to life as more people, all men, come out from the shadows.
Luca has been in Italy for a decade but has no regular income and is always on the move. He has a residence permit but local authorities have allowed him no place to stay.
He says his wife is pregnant and will soon give birth to another child, who will continue the cycle of a precarious, unhealthy life and will learn to be treated with little more than contempt by others.
Anghel wants to know about Switzerland and whether there are also politicians who crack down on travelling people, like Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni has.
But day-to-day survival keeps the group too busy to consider the option of moving to Switzerland.
A man named Cornel, who walks on crutches, has heard that Switzerland is a small country and that the possibilities to put up makeshift camps are much more limited than around Milan.
Switzerland remains just a name for most of the people under the Bacula bridge - a country beyond their reach.
swissinfo, based on an article in Italian by Françoise Gehring in Milan
On February 8 the Swiss will decide on a proposal to extend a key labour accord to Romania and Bulgaria, granting access to each other's job markets.
The issue is tied in with the continuation of a labour accord with the other 25 EU member states, in force since 2002 and extended in 2005.
The rightwing Swiss People's Party and two other small groups, including the Lega dei Ticinesi, forced a referendum against a decision by parliament last year.
Switzerland and Romanians
About 4,000 Romanian citizens live in Switzerland making up a small community.
However, in neighbouring Italy there are about 500,000 registered Romanians.
Since 2004 Romanian citizens, including Roma, have been able to enter Switzerland visa-free for up to three months.
The crime rate is unlikely to increase as a result of the extension of the labour accord to Romania, according to the Swiss government.
Roma in Italy
Up to 13,000 Roma live in northern Italy, including 4,000 of them in the city of Milan, according to Opera Nomadi.
There are 11 official camps and about 20 illegal settlements.
Roma from Romania often inhabit industrial wasteland on the outskirts of Milan.
Overall, there are an estimated 12 million Roma in Europe, making them the largest ethnic minority on the continent.