The Invisible African People in the Piana of Gioia Tauro

A never-ending tragedy engulfs illegal immigrants reduced to slavery as farm workers after the blaze that damaged their temporary shelter and injured many of them.

Africans in the Piana of Gioia Tauro region of Italy still live in inhuman conditions. Scattered among the villages of Rosarno, San Ferdinando and Rizziconi, they sleep in makeshift shelters or in old abandoned farmhouses, with only a sheet metal roof above their heads if they’re lucky.  Otherwise, in many cases, their houses are made of plastic bags. They don’t have water, electricity or toilets.  All of them arrived on Lampedusa Island by boat, after a trip of almost three years, having passed through the desert and the tortures and mistreatments of the prisons of Libya.  Now they live here, surrounded by a scrap heap. Their shower is a bottle of water behind a tinplate makeshift panel. So far, there are about one hundred people stuck in this situation, but it’s difficult to know the exact number.  Until two months ago the Africans used to sleep inside an abandoned industrial shed, called “the factory” by the squatters and best known in the newspapers as “Cartiera.” In July, a blaze burnt part of the building, especially the asbestos roof; after that, the local authorities closed it. During the summer, some of the African immigrants staying in Rosarno moved to another abandoned building close to a waste incinerator. Others went to the industrial zone, where fifteen of them live inside a small one-room house.  Even worse places are “La Rognetta” and “La Collina” (The Hill), located in the municipalities of San Ferdinando and Rizziconi. The first is what is left of an old orange juice factory located in the middle of town; the second is simply an open field surrounded by olive trees with two old farmhouses in the middle, whose roofs are broken down.  Everywhere, in this special territory of the “Piana’s Hell,” people sleep on the floor, on dirty mattresses, among flies, insects and garbage dumps. There’s no more hope in the eyes of these African workers, even if they’re just in their twenties. Still, they don’t give up.  “There’s no respect for human rights,” says Steve, a 25-year-old Ghanaian.  He was among the “Cartiera” Africans who last December  went to the Rosarno town hall to demonstrate after two Ghanians from the camp were seriously wounded  by a couple of Italians who shot them while they were walking in the street.  The two young Italians, probably connected with ‘Ndrangheta, the local branch of the Mafia, were arrested and one of them was condemned to 16 years in prison for attempted murder. Adding insult to injury, though, the authorities first promised then later denied work visas to the two wounded immigrants.

Steve remembers: “We went to the town hall to ask for protection and respect.” Their request seemed fair and natural to him. But they’re staying in Piana of Gioia Tauro, where the land is under the control of the ‘Ndrine, the Mafia families of the powerful and frightening crime bosses like Pesce, Piromalli and Molè, where ambushes and acts of violence are a way of life. This is why the brave protest of the Africans was a lesson in civility and dignity for the whole of Italy. In this ‘Ndrangheta land where there is no respect for official law, “sans papiers” immigrants come every year from other parts of Italy for seasonal jobs in agriculture: the orange-picking.  There’s a big business surrounding this illegal labor force. Landowners do not pay taxes and put the illegal immigrants at work for only 25 euros per day. And the illegal workers buy food in the supermarkets and discount stores around Rosarno. Authorities and police have been tolerating the phenomenon since 2003, when hundreds of Africans began sleeping in front of the town hall in protest, after being cleared out of an old public building, called the Villa Fazzari. Someone suggested that they move to the “Cartiera” and they stayed there until last July’s blaze.  It is still not clear who set the fire. Maybe it was an accident caused by a camping stove or a makeshift cooker. Maybe not. Every autumn there are at

 

least 1,500 illegal immigrants arriving in Rosarno to work in the orange fields. They usually leave with the approach of summer. Some of them remain in the town because they are illegal immigrants and they are afraid of the new government regulations which have established “illegal immigration” as a crime. Waiting for the orange-picking of October, they sit in front of their roofless houses, surrounded by debris, wondering what will happen to them tomorrow, next month, next year. No one takes care of them; the authorities do not provide any kind of assistance or housing. Only a few people from a spontaneous association and an immigrants’ watch group provide some small help, bringing them supplies like bottles of water.

 

Raffaella Cosentino                                                                                                                          September, 2009

 

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