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?"