For Migrants Who Hope For a Better Life, Rosarno is a Dead-End Road

Though not as well-known as the Sicilian Mafia, the organized crime group 'Ndrangheta is centered in Calabria, Italy, or the “toe” area of the country’s “boot.” Despite the ‘Ndrangheta’s steady rise, quietly becoming the world’s most powerful and influential crime syndicate, Calabria remains the poorest and least developed region of Italy.

But this is not a story about ‘Ndrangheta. Nor is this a story about the failing economy in Calabria, where there is a historically rooted cultural fear of resisting ‘Ndrangheta pressures and where most young people feel that leaving the region is the only opportunity for a good education and career. This is not even really a story about the orange industry, which was once the blood of the agricultural economy in Calabria, controlled by ‘Ndrangheta and exploiting migrant labor to turn a profit. This is a story about a place where migrants’ hopes and dreams go to die - Rosarno. Located in southwest Calabria, Rosarno is a city that shows the reality of Italy’s failed system of welcome and integration.

It’s February, 2018, and it’s another cold, wet day in the tendopoli – a tent city populated by African migrants on the outskirts of Rosarno. Men are huddled around small fires trying to keep warm in between the skeletal frames of what used to be tents. It is only a week after a fire burned down half of the tendopoli. This was the third fire in a year and the people living here are angry. Some of them lost all of their possessions in the fire, some of them now have no place to live. But mostly they are angry because Becky Moses, a 26-year-old women from Nigeria, died on the night of the fire. It was reported that she burned to death, trapped inside her tent.

Life in the tendopoli is hard for all of its inhabitants. There is no electricity, no running water. The toilets seem to have been broken for years, leaving people no choice but to defecate in the surrounding area. During the harvest season there are around 2,500 people living in the tendopoli, at times living ten to a tent. There are also approximately 1,500 migrants squatting in abandoned buildings in and around Rosarno. These buildings are often in such states of disrepair that they are missing part of a roof or a wall. In the winter it is too cold and in the summer it is too hot. There is no relief, no comfort. Some people go hungry and others go crazy. Everyone will say that they are suffering in one way or another. This is not what they imagined life in Europe would be.

In addition to agricultural work, many migrants also come to Rosarno because it is the only place in Italy where people who do not have a residence can renew their permit of stay (homelessness and transitory housing is common for many struggling migrants). It is for this reason that Ali, originally from The Gambia, found himself in the tendopoli. At the time I met him, he had been waiting six months for his paperwork to be processed. He has a small store in the front of his tent dwelling where he sells things like coffee, cigarettes, and oil, but he is barely able to make enough money to survive. Ali says he is tired of waiting, “I can’t live like this. I want a future. I want to have a family. Before we came here, had I known… There are many people here, the majority have their own talent. Some have been to school. Some have learned many things. So we just come here, people are wasted. The treatment here is too hard. I am here because of the papers. When I collect them, I’ll go.”

The migrants living in the tendopoli and abandoned buildings have come from West African countries such as Nigeria, The Gambia, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and Ghana. Many of them have been denied refugee status and are labeled as “economic migrants,” which defines them as “a person who travels from one country or area to another in order to improve their standard of living.” In contrast, a refugee is considered “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” One major characteristic that differentiates the two is the idea that an economic migrant has left their country by choice, while the opportunity to survive was still a viable option in their home country. Many “economic migrants” would argue that they had no choice but to leave their country in search of work because they could not make enough money to feed themselves and their families. Others who have been labeled “economic migrants” will argue that they did leave their country due to violence or persecution, but because they do not have any physical evidence they cannot prove their asylum case.

Violent conflict, famine, war, disease, human trafficking and extreme poverty continue to force Africans from their homes on a dangerous journey that takes them through the Sahara Desert, into a lawless Libya and across the Mediterranean Sea. These men, women and children risk their lives on every step of this journey, hoping and praying that they will make it to Europe where they think their lives will finally be better. Europe is seen as the land of opportunity, a safe place to go to school, find work, and be able to save enough money to send home to help family members who remain in Africa. But reality often paints a different picture.

Italy has a system in place for migrants who arrive by sea and apply for asylum. Upon landing, they can apply immediately. Then, they are sent to a housing and integration facility called a “reception center” where they are required to live until their asylum case is determined. This can take up to two years.

The quality of a reception centerdepends on the location and the organization managing it. Due to the high volume of asylum seekers to be housed, the Italian government pays 35 euros per day per person to reception centers run by both non-profit organizations and for-profit companies. With a lack of clear standards or regular inspections, this means drastic differences in living conditions and opportunities made available to migrants in the centers. For example, one reception centermight have Italian classes, job training, community integration and activities while another might not have any of these things. Migrants have reported living in reception centersthat would have 20 men sharing a room meant to hold four people, or being given expired food. Others have complained of unsanitary living conditions, being forced to live in mosquito-infested housing in close proximity to farm animals. And after two years, many migrants will pass through the system without learning Italian or having any understanding of how to navigate Italian society when they need to seek medical care, search for a job or try to secure housing.

For migrants who are given refugee status, there can be continued support. However, nearly half of asylum seekers are denied outright. Others are not given refugee status, but instead a more restrictive permit of stay. Once they receive their decision, they must immediately leave the reception center. They are not given any financial support or information on where to go next. At best, they are given a train ticket to the nearest large city.

What is the remedy for a migrant who speaks little Italian, and has no money, no job, no friends or family to stay with? Already, the dream of a better life in Europe begins to erode. Some try to find work in major cities like Milan or Rome. A few weeks of living on the street can take its toll.

I met Michael, a 27-year-old man from a rural part of Ghana, in the tendopoli, a few days after the fire. He had spent his first two years in Italy at a reception center in Lampedusa. After he was given his Ghanaian passport and a permit of stay, he was required to leave the center and quickly found himself homeless. With no friends or family in Italy, he came to Rosarno, hoping he would find work and be able to save some money.

“I came here, and here we are facing problems. When you look at the house, you don’t have water to bathe, you don’t have gas to cook, and the work is so… when you go to work they start from mid-morning, around 7 o’clock to around 8 o’clock in the evening. They will give you 20 euros. But not all of them. Sometimes you can go and work two days and you don’t see the boss again.” Michael laments, “Many, many people lose their soul. Many, many people get frustrated.”

Michael was one of the migrants who lost his tent and all of his possessions in the fire, finding himself homeless in Italy for the second time. When I first spoke with him, he said he was hungry and had no money to buy food. He left Ghana so he could help support his family. He is the eldest of four siblings, his mother is handicapped and his father died long ago. Michael says he has not been able to send any money to his family for months. “I am very sad. I am in Europe, my mother is proud of me… I’m in Europe now without doing anything for my mother. I don’t send anything for my mother. I don’t have money to eat.”

Thousands of migrants come to Rosarno every winter to find agricultural work. At this time of year there are oranges, kiwis and olives to be harvested in the region and farms rely on the exploitation of uncontracted migrant labor. If you drive around Rosarno just before dawn, you will see a continuous flow of African men on bicycles. They are going to specific unmarked locations where they know the caporali will come to make pick-ups. Caporali are middlemen, typically African, who are hired by the farm owners to bring them workers. In exchange for selecting someone, the caporali will take a cut from their already low wages. There are always more migrants waiting than there is work, so those that fall under the good graces of a caporali will likely work more often and those that argue about unfair wages or improper working conditions will never be selected. 

It is a desperate cycle, and migrants are fed up. Sometimes they get together to discuss plans for a protest or strike. At one such meeting, 100 or so frustrated men gathered to share their complaints of low wages, the refusal to give work contracts, and the grim living conditions they are subjected to. They speak of organizing a peaceful protest to bring these issues into the public eye.

Though significant changes are yet to be made, this would not be the first migrant-led demonstration in Rosarno. In 2010, migrants gained international attention when they took to the streets to protest against brutal attacks allegedly instigated by ‘Ndrangheta. During the demonstration, confrontations turned violent, which resulted in the police summarily removing all African migrants from the city of Rosarno, claiming it was for their own safety. Opposing views would argue that it served the community as an opportunity to cleanse the city of unwanted outsiders and their unsanitary encampments. The media sensationalized the events as “race riots,” but more than only being a case of black vs. white, this was the first time ever in Calabria that any group had ever loudly and publicly opposed the ‘Ndrangheta. For local Calabrians, there may be too much fear to do such a thing, but for someone who has fled war, who has suffered torture in Libya, who has crossed the sea in an overcrowded raft, for someone who has seen horrific death after horrific death. These are people who have already lost everything, they are not afraid.

But for now, Rosarno is the ultimate, final disappointment for migrants who thought that life in Europe would be a chance to start over, to find something better.

The situation for migrants in Rosarno has remained more or less the same for about a decade. The story has been told in Italian and international news outlets. NGOs have likened the living conditions in the tendopoli to a humanitarian crisis. Still, nothing has changed.

Two months after I met Ali in the tendopoli, he sent me a message to tell me that he finally got his documents renewed and that if he could save some money he would go to Germany. He says he doesn’t feel like there is a future for him in Italy. “When you say I am black, you are white, or you are from America, I am from Gambia. Or you speak English, I speak French. This is racism. It brings nothing. It only brings us backward. As you can see, we are not going forward. They are not helping people here. I myself, I don’t want to live here.”


Courtnay Robbins Photography

Courtnay Robbins photographer based in Los Angeles. Social, humanitarian photography and documentary.
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