Migrant Lives

'Refugeeland' - Italy Resettles 80 Asylum Seekers In Town Of 7

The government's placement of migrants could increase the population of Vaccarozzi di Erbezzo, a miniscule mountain village above Verona, more than tenfold.

They'll watch the human drama unfold below.
Fabio Poletti

VACCAROZZI DI ERBEZZO — Locals have nicknamed this tiny Italian town "refugeeland." Located high in the mountains above Verona, Vaccarozzi di Erbezzo is home to just seven people. But that is now set to change — in a major way — with the arrival of as many as 80 asylum seekers resettled from other regions in Italy.

The transfers are part of an ambitious plan by Interior Minister Marco Minniti to house three migrants for every 1,000 people in towns across the country. Lucio Campedelli, Vaccarozzi di Erbezzo's mayor, is a political moderate. But he firmly opposes the plan.

"Sending 80 refugees here would turn this place upside down," says Campedelli. "They only told us before the summer that they would arrive, but we can't do anything about it. I don't want to add fuel to the fire, but I hope they stop with these first 26 arrivals."

The first 26 migrants arrived in early November after landing on the shores of Calabria in southern Italy a week earlier. They come from Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, Sudan, and Ivory Coast. All of them are men, and all are still traumatized from their difficult journey in rickety barges across the Mediterranean.

The group won't find much comfort here, a cold town hidden in a dense fog that cloaks the surrounding hills and keeps the seven inhabitants feeling trapped inside. Two of those seven citizens are over the age of 90 and have domestic helpers assisting them at home. "I hope that all these men are sons of God and that they aren't here to harm or kill us," says Ielena, a Romanian domestic helper.

For now, the asylum seekers of Vaccarozzi di Erbezzo are being held in a former NATO barracks administered by the local government of Verona and leased to the nonprofit cooperative Versoprobo. The site is guarded by a double gate and a turret, and entry and exit is still prohibited, even for the migrants, many of whom are still struggling to recover from their traumatic odyssey.

"For now it's better that they readapt in our center, where we can take care of their primary needs, such as food," says Andrea Montagnini, a member of Versoprobo. "Soon they will be able to leave under certain rules, and we'll try to provide them with a shuttle to town. But at night they'll have to return here."

Versoprobo claims that locals should have nothing to fear from the resettlement program. "We've tried to reassure the local community through several meetings that they won't have to change their way of life just because these refugees have arrived here," says Montagnelli.

Bruno is moving bales of hay with his tractor to feed his cows, and doesn't seem reassured by such promises. "As long as they stay in the barracks I won't be worried, but the idea of them going out at night scares me," he says. "But at the end of the day what can we do when it's seven of us against 80 of them?"

A curly-haired woman in the town's central square is a bit more optimistic. "In other countries they don't have problems with managing refugees, let's hope that it'll be the same here," she says. "I would prefer to have them kept in the center but I don't want to assume the worst."

At the local coffee bar, copies of today's edition of the local newspaper L'Arena announcing the migrants' arrival have sold out. "Sending 80 here is madness. It would completely change our land," says Liana, the barista. "Even sending two here would be too many if we didn't ask for them."

Like many locals, Liana wonders why they are being sent to such a remote place, away from the more populous city of Verona. "They say they're sending them here because there's a facility ready in the NATO barracks, but Verona also has places ready," she says. "They prefer to send them here in the mountains, far out of sight and out of mind."

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Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe

BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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