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Is there life after the Rosarno riots?

Rosarno in southern Italy was devastated after migrants and locals reached a violent breaking point. Over a year after the government promised to improve the situation, has anyone's standard of living improved?

by Maria Teresa Sette On June 6, 2011

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On January 7, 2010 in Rosario, Italy, several shots were fired with air rifles at three Africans who were returning from their work on the farms. The rumor soon spread among the immigrants that some of their own were killed. The news was false, but the mere rumor was enough to spark their rage. The images from the intense revolt which followed have been shown around the world. Armed with iron bars and sticks, the African workers marched into the centre of Rosarno and destroyed everything they encountered on the streets: trash cans, shop windows, cars, etc. The locals in turn organized patrols to counteract the rioting. The clashes between the groups were violent, with more than 50 people being injured.

Yet the real losers in the Rosarno incident are the local and national Italian institutions, which for years pretended not to see – and even contributed – to a situation that would be unacceptable for any civilised country. The outbreak of violence in the Calabrian town suddenly revealed to the international media a system of slavery, racism, and intimidation that has been in existence for more than two decades. The event exposed to Italy and the world the extremely deprived conditions in which these “slaves” live: camped out in abandoned houses, shacks, broken-down warehouses (sometimes without a roof), and without electricity amid mud and rats. They receive an average of 25 euros for 12 hours of work in the fields – five of which goes towards the ‘Ndrangheta tax. And there is no space for rebellion.

In the aftermath of the revolt, the public was shocked, intellectuals were outraged, and institutions were (for once) ready to respond. Rivers of empty words flowed, including  bombastic promises and vows to provide appropriate funds. More than a year after this tragic chapter in history, has anything changed in southern Italy?

Last May, the Rete Radici association – a group of organizations committed to defending the rights of migrants – published their findings from monitoring initiatives in the area around Rosarno between fall and winter.

The report claimed that illegal hiring, intimidation, severe housing crises, and poor health conditions still persist. This scenario is not only applicable to Rosarno and surrounding areas, but rather to southern Italy on a whole.

“The exploitation of migrants is one characteristics of the Mediterranean model of agriculture. Rosarno is only one of the nodes of the network, one of the obligatory destination for this army of slaves. In Calabria, Sicily, Campania, Basilicata and Puglia, the migrants live in the same conditions. The vast majority comes from sub-Saharan Africa, fleeing war and persecution, as well as extortion and illegal arrests in Libya before reaching the shores of Italy. They arrived between 2007 and 2009, before the controversial agreements with the Gaddafi regime. Migrants require international protection, care and acceptance, yet they are systematically marginalized by the Italian government. As a result they live in a limbo from which it is hard to climb out of, a limbo that is made of invisibility and discrimination. For this reason they end up working in farms, and they become slaves to a system that makes them invisible and subject to blackmail. Prisoners of the paradoxes of the Bossi-Fini law and the Pacchetto Sicurezza (Security Package), and generally of Italy’s repressive immigration policies.”

For these reason, Rete Radici decided to turn the Rosarno case into a national issue by launching a legal dispute. Between May 4 – 6, the movement marched in Rome with 500 Africans from all regions of southern Italy. The fight for migrants rights is based on a three points: the exploitation of suffering in the rural south, the conditions of vulnerability in countries of origin, and the issues regarding expelling asylum seekers.

“After our meeting with the government, they seemed to be open to our requests. They said they will ask the local Commissions for Refugees to reconsider any single case. This could mean that we could obtain two thousand permits for humanitarian reasons, specifically for all the migrants who entered in Italy between 2007 and 2009. But nothing is certain,” says Alessio Magro Rete Radici. “Now there will be a meeting between the Department of Civil Liberties and Immigration of the Ministry of the Interior, the commission, and the police in towns involved in the exploitation of migrants. Obviously we are very satisfied and will continue to pursue the dispute to the end.”

Backwardness, the mafia, and solidarity: A journey into the land of blood oranges

To get to the center of Rosarno, I drive on uneven countryside roads. I’m surrounded by endless fields of citrus groves, a few old cottages, and street signs riddled with bullets.

I enter Piana di Gioia Tauro in Calabria, Italy’s poorest region and home of the country’s richest, most dangerous crime organization – know as the ‘Ndrangheta. More than a year after the riots, it only takes a visit here to realise the causes of the riots remain intact and more alive than ever. Racism and exploitation of illegal labor is not enough to explain the problem’s complexity in southern Italy. In this areas, the denial of human and civil rights are intertwined with problems of a primitive nature: economic underdevelopment and social backwardness, territorial control by criminal clans, indifference (and sometimes manipulation) by local institutions, and an Italian government which is indifferent to these issues.

After the violent clashes, the broken-down shacks were shutdown and the immigrants were moved into shelters in Puglia and Campania. Many promises were made by the Italian Minister of Interior about building new housing for migrants, social projects and jobs for local people. So far these words are just rhetoric.

Has anything changed in Rosarno since January 7, 2010? Not really. According to locals, the situation is in fact even worse. The slums where migrants used to live were destroyed, and as a result they don’t even have a roof over their heads. Agriculture is doing worse compared to the previous year, making wages decline. There is also more police, which forces illegal migrants to become marginalized even further.

On February 20, 2011, the mayor of Rosarno – elected a few months ago, after two years of an interim administration due to the mafia infiltrating the city council – inaugurated a temporary reception center. A permanent one is due to be constructed, for which the Ministry of Interior has allocated 1,800€ billion. The centre would provide 200 beds, yet they are only available for immigrants with permission to stay in the country. This means that the vast majority of undocumented migrants will continue to hide in the countryside, camping wherever they can find refuge.

In 2009, there were about 2,500 immigrants in Rosarno. Today, no one knows the exact number but it’s estimated between 500 – 700 immigrants. I  can only see a few of them.

In the Piazza del Duomo I met 27 years-old Moussa. Two years ago he fled from the Ivory Coast and landed on the coast of Lampedusa. He arrived on a boat packed with hundreds of young men who defied the sea for a chance at a better life.

The memory of that January 7 is vivid in his mind, but he is not too interested in talking about it. He is visibly afraid. In this area even a simple glance at the wrong person could lead to violence. Silence is the wiser choice. Why is he still living in Rosarno? Maybe things have changed since a year ago? No, not at all. He pulls from his pocket his faded residence permit. “Expired,” he says. He is afraid of being stopped by police and sent back to Africa. Yet in Rosarno there is no work. He only works one day a week pruning and plowing the land. His friends have gone to Naples and Foggia to pick tomatoes, but he decided to stay. At least he knows the city well – He knows where to hide and how to avoid the police. How does he manage to survive? He opens the bag he has in his hand and shows me his meal: a bag of rice and an eggplant. Moussa takes the extra time to show me where he lives: an old house in the center of town, which he shares with five other Africans.

Our conversation is abruptly cut short.

For the last ten minutes, two young men have been staring at us from inside a car which had been turning several times around the square. They suddenly stop and exit the car, and head towards our direction. Moussa quickly flees away on his old bike. A little older than teenagers, they sport defiant attitudes and branded outfits. They greet me politely, saying are just making sure that the “black guy” is not annoying me. Reading between the lines, for those familiar with the verbal codes of this land, it’s not difficult to translate their suggestion as a warning to mind my own business.

“It is better not to talk to these people” one of them interjects. “They are animals. They should leave if they don’t want to face the same fate as last year.” Are they referring to the incident on January 7? “Yeah, last year we gave them a good lesson. My arms hurt for three days after all the beatings.” Why are you so against them? “Because they only create problems, they piss in the streets and don’t integrate.” How can they integrate if they live in camps, work illegally for a few euro and are not welcomed by locals? “We are not racists. There is no work for anyone here – It’s a dead town. There is no community center, there are no cinemas, no shops. There’s the church’s recreation center, but it closes at 6 pm. There is nothing for us, why should we accept these people?” Meanwhile, three other boys joined the discussion. While they do not think that Africans are animals, they do think there are too many of them for their town to accommodate all with housing and work.

As the conversation progresses it becomes clear to me that these twenty-something would-be mafiosi are simply victims of a much more complex system than what is on the surface. They are trapped in a reality which they didn’t chose, but fail to break free due to ignorance, lack of opportunity, and sense of belonging in their community.

One was in prison for 18 months, and is currently under surveillance. He was arrested after opening a car wash because the government suspected him of being a figurehead for the mafia. “At the age of 20, they have already ruined my life,” he says. The other boy is eighteen years-old. He blames the Africans because Rosarno is “a target” after what happened last year. Only a few days earlier, the government arrested his uncle, along with seizing his company’s building, two cars, four houses, a jeweler, a petrol station, a games room, a football team. “And what for? ‘’Ndrangheta,’ they say. Bullshit. The ‘Ndrangheta doesn’t exist.”

The assets seized by police on April 11, 2011 amounted to roughly 190 million euros, and according to investigators they can be attributed to the Pesce ’Ndrangheta clan. Across Calabria, Lombardia, Campania, and Rome police seized 40 companies, operating primarily in the transport sector, the citrus cultivation, and trade. The seized assets also included 44 homes, four houses, 12 garages, two service areas, two football clubs, 60 plots of land, and 164 vehicles.

For Don Pino Varrà, a priest in Rosarno, the worldwide reputation of his town as a nest for racists and criminals is difficult to digest. Don Pino still remembers the first African who landed in Rosario – his name was Ali, and he came from Tunisia. It was in the mid 1980s, and soon afterwards the flow of migrants coming from central and northern Africa would multiply exponentially.

Rosarno has always been considered a welcoming area. In the 1940s it gained the nickname ‘little America.’ It’s true, there has never been real integration, but neither racism. What happened last year has to be seen in light of the area’s economical situation. Twenty years ago the economy was prosperous – the orange trade was doing well and there was work for everyone. Immigrants from North Africa used to rent the houses, but gradually there were too many of them. At that point they took refuge wherever they could, in the countryside, in the slums, wherever. For twenty years the two churches and many citizens of Rosarno fed these people, distributed clothes, blankets, and helped as they could. For twenty years we worked in silence and still continue to do so.

It’s too easy to accuse Rosarno of being racist. But the truth is that we have been completely abandoned. Where have the institutions been in the last twenty years?

Photo Credits: Maria Teresa Sette and Giordano Pennisi courtesy of Associazione Rete Radici

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