Italy’s Invisibles

Struggling against xenophobia and exploitation, African migrants try to survive in Italy.

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This is Yusif, 27 years old, from Ghana. He came to Rosarno in December 2009, just before the incident when migrants were driven out. He didn't get to stay long, and never wants to come back.

One Italian boy came to get five of us for work. When we got to the house, his father came out and asked “Where are the people I asked you to go and get?”

The boy answered, “Here they are.”

The father said, “What do you mean, where?”

“They are standing right here,” the boy said.

Then the father said, “No, I do not want those. Take them back, and get whites.”

Why? Because we are black.

This story is told by Gibirine Yusif Mohammed. He is twenty-seven, and black. Escaping his home country, Ghana, he fled through Libya and got to Italy by boat. Not a regular ferry though. He went over the Mediterranean on a small rubber dingy, with twenty-something people on board, set to sea by Libyan smugglers who charge steep prices for nothing but a chance. Few make the journey. Yusif did, and came to Italy in hope of a better life. By definition, he is a migrant. Though, his tale is that of a refugee – escaping home for an endless road, sojourned in a country without signposts.

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Here lived 800 migrants. This factory, on the outskirts of Rosarno in southern Italy, housed male migrants from North Africa for years. This january, however, they were driven out by an Italian mob; xenophobia and racism making it impossible to stay. And that's when several migrants were shot.

This New Year, Yusif found himself in Rosarno. Like most he found it peaceful; like a few, he found a job. Migrants are often employed at the large fruit farms in southern Italy, picking citrus for half the wage of an Italian worker. Living with some eight hundred refugees and migrants in a derelict warehouse, Yusif got to work on the fields for a couple of days. Then unfolded the events that would bring media attention from all over the world.

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The factory was originally built for processing oil. It was never put to use, and migrants found a haven here. No toilets, no kitchen, no sanitary facilities at all. There's nothing but space; and hardly that, with hundreds huddled inside.

On January 7, a migrant was shot outside the factory, supposedly by an Italian. Caught off guard and without any explanation, almost all migrants in Rosarno raged against this hate-crime – staging a demonstration at the town square, they demanded attention from officials.

But, this turned into a violent clash, as a mob of Italian youngsters (men only) came to confront the migrant gathering. Four more migrants were shot, and twenty were seriously injured. The following night, the Carabinieri (Italian military police) brought in buses to evacuate all the North African migrants, for fear for their lives.

“When we moved about town, and the people saw we were immigrants, they started beating us. They wanted to come and fight us. Police tried to stop them, but, said to us that if we did not leave the place… if we did not take these buses or leave on our own… then, whatever happened, whatever happened the next day, would be our own fault.”

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The ultimate goal for migrants within Italy is getting a permit to stay. None of the 800 men in the factory has got it yet.

Right after the incident, when migrants had fled, the media arrived. Journalists from all over the world reported about the conflict in Rosarno – exposing the racism and xenophobia Italian media had failed to report on. There are few among the Italian population who take sides with the migrants, and very few who do in public.

Having helped migrants organise themselves in unions for years, Pepe Pugliesi is one of them. He has been forced to a life in secrecy, out of public sight. He is under constant threat of attack from the Ndrangheta – the Mafia ruling Calabria and the southern parts of Italy – for helping the migrants who could otherwise be exploited without resistance.

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Even southern Italy gets cold winters. The factory silos, the ones originally meant for oil, loom above the factory floor – promising refuge from the cold.

Pugliesi talks about the bubble that burst. When attention came to Rosarno, it was long overdue, “Journalists were shocked, when they came to Rosarno. Nothing prepared them for what they saw. Not only were they shocked by the incident itself, but, by the living conditions of the migrants. Human beings not living in human conditions. It was horrible, and still is.”

Bringing light onto Rosarno meant questioning the Italian government policies on migration, and media stirred what had been stale for a while. Silvio Berlusconi’s government declared a zero-tolerance policy on the misuse and abuse of migrants.

But, after the incident in January, media attention came to a halt.

What happened to Yusif, and the eight hundred people who fled with him?

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Today, the factory stands a haunted memory of what xenophobia can lead to in a modern, well fared, country such as Italy. And even through all of this, there are some who still keep their hopes up.

The tracks lead north, to the small village, Castel Volturno, close to Naples. Here, Yusif and his friends have found refuge. Castel Volturno is a sanctuary of sorts – providing temporary home to over seven thousand migrants without documents or permit to stay. Though safe and lodged for the time being, Castel Volturno has become a slum out of the wreckage that is Italian integration.

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This is Ali, 25 years old, from Sudan. Two of his friends were shot, outside the factory, on January 8th.

Migrants are left alone, seldom in touch with the Italy outside. Instead, they have got problems with the authorities and police. At a ramshackle bar in Castel Voltorno, sits thirty-seven-year-old Fredric from Ghana, who talks about the constant abuse from the people in command.

This was his view, from inside the silo.

“ I was asleep in my house, about one in the morning. I do not know how they got inside and could open the door. I was asleep. When I opened my eyes, I saw three Carabinieri. Three soldiers, looking for drugs. They asked where my drugs were, but I told them that I do no do drugs. I have not even seen drugs with my eyes before. And, when Carabinieri come, they control you. They lock you somewhere, search your room, take everything you have. Even mobile phones, they take. Money. Everything. But the next day, you can not report them – they are the police.”

The migrants in Castel Volturno are caught between authorities – not getting residence permits (a prerequisite for jobs), given the complexity of governmental procedures. At Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro, Italy’s largest labour organisation, migrants are becoming an increasingly big section of the membership. While the government falters in supporting the migrants and protecting their rights, the labour organisation battles the obstacles of bureaucracy on a daily basis – an uphill battle at every turn.

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This is Mohammed, 37 years old, from Ghana. While working in an orange field outside Rosarno, he fell and broke his arm. His employer denied their affiliation, and Mohammed was stripped of all insurance coverage.

“There is one big problem. The Italian government does not want immigrants to come here. They just want them out of Italy,” says Claudio Del’Aquila of the confederazione.

When most fled to Castel Volturno, only a few migrants stayed in Rosarno. The derelict warehouse, which earlier housed hundreds, stands as a haunted monument to the power of racial hatred. Soon, there would not be any trace, whatsoever, of the migrants that once lived their lives here.

And this is what he saw, while living in Rosarno, when he woke up in the morning.

Among the few who stayed back in Rosarno, none live in the open. In one of the orange plantations out of town, on the mud among the citrus trees, a small plywood cabin houses some of them. Afraid to be discovered by the police, they do not use a generator because of the sound. They do not have running water. On the mud floor, a single candle is their only light.

The guys living here, all North African, share a bottle of champagne and smoke cigarettes.

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Inside sits Siriman, 18 years old, from Mali. He still remains in Rosarno, hoping for a better future and for the incident to be forgotten. Sleeping through the night is tough without drinking and smoking first, he says. He wants to go home.

“I have got no nothing. No money, no documents. I hope to get a job in Rosarno after all this is over. I had some money, but I sent it home to my family. So what can we do? If I do not smoke or drink, I can not sleep.”

Siriman is eighteen. He came here from Mali.

Two hundred miles north, in Castel Volturno, sits Yusif, who did not dare to stay. Both regret ever coming to Italy.

As always – from fear and from want to just blend in – they stay hidden. As cars drive past the orange fields of Rosarno, the only evidence of migrants living here are the flickering lights from some candles on the mud.

And, at a glance, they can not be seen at all.

Originally published in Independent World Report, 2010. Edited by the great Tasneem Khalil.