ROSARNO — A shantytown of tents and shacks stretches out across an abandoned industrial district halfway between the towns of Rosarno and San Ferdinando, deep in the southern Italian region of Calabria. Some 2,500 farm workers from at least 16 different countries live in deplorable conditions surrounded by waste, with no access to running water and other essential services.
When populist parties swept to victory in Italian elections on March 4, it was largely on the promise of imposing new curbs on immigration, reflecting a tide of anti-immigrant sentiment in many corners of the country. One of the first places to exhibit violence against foreigners was this Calabrian agricultural town of 15,000 people, which also happens to be a stronghold of the ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate.
Last October, Italian police arrested four people — three of them minors — for a series of racially motivated attacks on immigrants. The gang would drive around town at night in a Fiat Punto looking for people of African origin and lowering the car windows to hit them with sticks, chains, and knives. Most of the victims were seasonal agricultural workers returning to the shantytown on their bicycles. Dozens suffered broken noses, shattered bones, and several serious concussions.
The right-wing League, once a regional northern party, made its first foray into southern Italy by campaigning on a xenophobic platform that appealed to many in Rosarno. The League became the country's third-largest party in the elections, dominating the north and winning enough votes in the south to elect leader Matteo Salvini to the Senate in Calabria.
Seasonal workers live in deplorable conditions in Italy — Photo: Andrea Scarfò
The local mayor claims that only one in ten workers are undocumented, but a representative of the local chapter of the NGO Doctors for Human Rights claims that almost all are working on the farms illegally. The town of San Ferdinando has been taken over by the central government four times after being infiltrated by the ‘Ndrangheta, while authorities have stationed three police units on the edges of the camp.
A fire in January burned down several shacks and killed Becky Moses, a 27-year-old woman from Nigeria. The sprawling camp that remains hosts a bustling community that includes a church, two food kiosks, and a makeshift bicycle shop. With no transit options to speak of, bicycles are the only way for camp residents to reach the outside world.
On the other side of a fence, a large warehouse is home to another 400 migrant workers. Before being abandoned, it was a migrant welcome center run by the now-bankrupt local NGO Augustus. The warehouse is just one of many in this extensive camp, some of them tents run by the Italian Interior Ministry and others dilapidated shacks illegally occupied by recent arrivals. Another abandoned factory houses hundreds of people, forced to sleep on the floor in cramped surroundings.
"It's the worst situation we've ever seen, and the camp's population continues to grow," says Alessia Mancuso of the Italian NGO Emergency. "More seasonal workers are now forced to stay here the whole year without access to clean water, making them vulnerable to respiratory disease and other illnesses."
Why would I care?
The NGO runs a medical clinic in the nearby town of Polistena, shuttling migrants on buses to and from the shantytown. Despite the arrests of the four men last October, assaults on immigrants have continued and the political climate isn't helping. Since the arrests, Emergency has reported at least 30 cases where immigrants were victims of hit-and-run drivers.
"My friend went to San Ferdinando on his bicycle to request an identity card, but he was run over by a car on the way," says one migrant worker, pointing to his injured friend. "This is not okay, it has to end."
For several weeks, immigrants have been protesting in the streets of Rosarno to call attention to poor working conditions on the farms and the daily violence they face in town. Most fruit-pickers are paid 20 euros a day to pick oranges, far below the national minimum wage of 7 euros per hour.
"Places like this shouldn't exist anymore," says Vincenzo Alampi, director of the local branch of the charity organization Caritas, as he paces through the shantytown. "These people aren't second-class citizens, they are a source of wealth for this land. The agricultural industry would die without these workers, and I hope the politicians understand this."
The road to Rosarno and the port city of Gioia Tauro is marked by potholes, piles of garbage, and abandoned construction sites. Workers on bicycles look over their shoulders whenever they hear the sound of a passing car, wary of being attacked.
In a phone call to his father intercepted by the Italian police, one of the four men arrested for the assaults was caught confessing to the hit-and-run. When asked if he stopped after running the man over, he responded: "No, I kept driving, why would I care about those people?"
It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.
PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.
Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.
Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.
Share capital of one billion
The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).
The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.
Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.
While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.
The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down
Raising Initial Coin Offering
Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.
For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."
What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".
Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.
Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.
Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.
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