MILAN — Last year, 181,000 migrants reached Italy by sea, crossing the Mediterranean at the risk of their lives. More are expected to come this year. But Italy, with its sluggish economy, is struggling to host those migrants, especially asylum seekers who are guaranteed six months of free housing and meals under Italian law.

Interior Minister Marco Minniti recently unveiled a plan to solve this problem: make community service a mandatory requirement for asylum seekers. The idea is an attempt to cover part of the expense of hosting the migrants and help improve the souring relations between refugees and locals. Anti-immigrant sentiment is mounting in Italy, and a growing number of Italians now view refugees as a burden.

But the plan is drawing criticism from all directions. Some experts believe the plan is unconstitutional, while refugee advocates have accused Minniti of trying to exploit refugee labor.

Iside Gjergji, a columnist at progressive newspaper Il Fatto, accused Minniti of trying to turn asylum seekers into "an army of free laborers." And Lorenzo Trucco, a lawyer working at ASGI, a research institute specializing in immigration law, told The Washington Post that the proposal reflects "a dangerous climate in which fundamental rights are seen as something that authorities can decide to grant, rather than as a non-negotiable part of democracy. Asylum is a human right recognized by the international law, so it shouldn't be conditional."

Italy is expected to spend 3.8 billion euros, or $4 billion, on refugees in 2017. That's only a fraction of what Germany, Europe's largest host of refugees, is spending. But the cost of asylum seekers has become a hot-button issue as conservative politicians and media outlets depict refugees as freeloaders who divert resources from poor Italian families.

Matteo Salvini, the leader of the anti-immigration Northern League party, falsely accused Italy's progressive government of "hosting foreigners in luxurious villas while Italians are freezing in the winter cold." Right-wing newspapers regularly feature misleading articles claiming that asylum seekers are living in four-star hotels. Even if they are inaccurate, such stories resonate in a country where the number of citizens living below the poverty line has risen sharply, from 3 percent to almost 8 percent in the past decade.

The plan does have supporters. Asylum seekers in Italy are allowed to work, but only after they complete lengthy bureaucratic procedures. According to a law approved in 2015, asylum seekers must first submit all necessary paperwork to Italy's overloaded bureaucracy, which can take as much as a month. They then have to wait two additional months before they're eligible for work permits.

Even if they do so, it's hard for them to find employment. Caritas, a large Catholic charity involved in helping asylum seekers, says the community service plan would help refugees “to get out from a situation of inactivity, which isn't healthy."

Minitti's national plan also builds on what is already happening in some Italian towns. Angelino Alfano, a former interior minister, previously encouraged local communities to make asylum seekers do community service for free. Places such as Rimini, a city on the Adriatic coast, and Fiumicino, just outside Rome, did just that.

Minniti, who took office in December, seems to be aiming at making Alfano's directive into a national plan. But the contours of the plan, including whether asylum seekers would be paid, still aren't clear. Italy's Parliament must approve any measure, and Minniti has yet to submit one to the legislature.

The introduction of mandatory community service for migrants could also merely be part of Minniti's efforts to look tough on immigration. Earlier this month, he also said he plans to open more identification and expulsion centers, facilities aimed at expelling illegal immigrants. That move, along with the community service plans, signals that authorities are pressuring asylum seekers rather than letting them live at the government's expense.

Immigration will be a central issue in Italy's next elections, which are scheduled for next year but could be held earlier. And most politicians and parties, not just Minniti, are quickly adopting tougher stances on the topic.

As Claudia Daconto, a political analyst at Panorama magazine, recently noted, “the ruling Democratic party cannot afford to let [conservative parties such as] the Northern League and Brothers of Italy monopolize the issue."