Human Trafficking Routes, From Asia To The Fields Of Italy

'Entry to Italy guaranteed for €10,000’ is the hook: An inside report of how Pakistani and Bangladeshi migrants arrive in Europe, following the death of 39 Vietnamese in a refrigerated truck in Britain.

Eviction of Baobab Migrant Camp in Rome on Nov. 13, 2018.
Eviction of Baobab Migrant Camp in Rome on Nov. 13, 2018.
Francesco Grignetti

ROME — The first to pierce the veil on the illegal Pakistani immigrants may have been the magistrates of Sassari, on the island of Sardinia, investigating another very serious crime: international terrorism. Instead, they stumbled upon a well-oiled machine bringing a steady stream of people to Rome.

The system was simple: false documents, fictitious contracts for seasonal agricultural work, permits that frequently changed hands, and a corrupt official replacing ‘damaged" passports with new, altered ones in the embassy in Rome. And just like that, without even getting their hands dirty, all problems were solved.

Apparently, these Pakistanis were seasonal workers coming to Italy to work the fields near Avezzano, in the Abruzzo region east of Rome. Some farmers from that area were involved in the scheme. But they soon began to have problems with inspectors from the Labor Department and Social Security office. One intercepted message reads, "The people have arrived, but they never showed up to the workplace…They didn't show up, and now the employers are receiving letters."

There was a price list, too: around €10,000 for guaranteed entry to Italy. So-called ‘agents' even issued receipts when pocketing the funds for their involvement. Another intercepted message reads, "In Avezzano we can get 50 or 60 permits! When a permit for a specific person is issued, and we can't give it to him…we can give it to you. It is possible to bring another person from Pakistan to Italy with the same documents, we can change the name, this can be done at the embassy."

The accomplice at the embassy was ready to play his part.

It was an easy trick. As soon as the person arrived in Italy, he had to soak the original passport in water then soil it with ink. At which point it would be necessary to replace it, and the accomplice working at the embassy was ready to play his part. You just had to pay.

Unlike their African counterparts, would-be migrants from Asia rarely undertake the risk of a sea-crossing. In any case, it is always necessary to board a few airplane flights to get nearer to the goal. Another recent investigation, carried out by an Italian Carabinieri organized crime and terrorism unit, uncovered a Chinese operation headed by the Beijing-based Hong brothers, Jin Tu and Jin Bang, who had accomplices in Greece, Turkey and Italy. In this case, the planes departed from China, would stop in Russia to refuel, then land on the Mediterranean coast for the last hop to Italy.

Last month, the risks of illegal migration from Asia came to light in the tragic deaths of 39 Vietnamese whose bodies were found in a refrigerated truck in Essex, U.K.

Another probe in the northeastern city of Udine found a band of four Pakistanis based in Milan had set up fictitious businesses to bring their compatriots—as well as Afghans and Bangladeshis— over to Italy, and to Germany, and to Switzerland, via Hungary.

Inside migrant camp during an eviction in Rome​ — Photo: Matteo Nardone/Pacific Press/ZUMA

It's a commonly used method. According to a 2019 report published by Frontex, the E.U. border patrol agency, Pakistani and Bangladeshi migrants arrive principally via counterfeit documents, with the airport in Istanbul being the main port of arrival. From there, they branch off into groups moving by land (hidden in freight trucks) and by sea (mostly sailing vessels manned by Ukrainians). According to official statistics, in the year 2018 there were 5,869 illegal immigrants intercepted along the Balkan route: 1,669 were Afghan, 1,017 were Pakistani, and 980 were Iranian.

The story of clandestine Asia-to-Europe trafficking is, of course, not new. Two years ago the Trieste Court of Appeal ruled the statute of limitations had expired on a longstanding case against Josip Loncaric, a Croatian national, considered the biggest human trafficker of the Balkans of the 1990s.

Loncaric, once a simple taxi driver, is today the owner of assets and companies worth tens of millions: villas, luxury automobiles, a car rental service, even two Balkan airline companies. He has managed the international traffic of illegal immigrants in a ruthless and highly organized manner, separating them on strict ethnic grounds (Filipino, Bangladeshi, Chinese) with connection points in Russia, Ukraine, Croatia and Slovenia. Loncaric's chief accomplice, his Chinese ex-wife Xue Mei Wang, was sentenced to five years in prison and extradited to Italy in 2002.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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