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