The Natural Border

I am happy to announce the publication of my new monograph The Natural Border: Bounding Migrant Farmwork in the Black Mediterranean, with Cornell University Press.

Feel free to write me to obtain information related to book promotion activities and planned events.

A discount of 30 % can be applied when ordered on https://www.combinedacademic.co.uk (use code FFF23 during payment checkout),

abstract

The book tells the recent history of Mediterranean rural capitalism from the perspective of marginalized Black African farm workers. In the book, I show how in the context of global supply chains and repressive border regimes, agrarian production and reproduction are based on fundamental racial hierarchies.

Taking the example of the tomato—a typical ‘Made in Italy’ commodity— I ask myself asks how political boundaries are drawn around the land and the labor needed for its production, what technologies of exclusion and inclusion enable capitalist operations to take place in the Mediterranean agrarian frontier, and which practices structure the allocation, use and commodification of land and labor across the tomato chain. While the mobile infrastructures that mobilize, channel, commodify and segregate labor play a central role in the ‘naturalization’ of racial segregation, they are also terrains of contestation and power—and thus, as The Natural Border demonstrates, reflect the tense socio-ecological transformation the Mediterranean border space is going through today.

Toxic Borders (1)

How farm workers are wrecked by a corporate food regime in South Italy’s migrant ghettos

This post is the somewhat longer version of a blog contribution I posted on Border Criminologies, as part a collaboration with the journal Geopolitics to promote open access platforms. The research presented here forms part of a monograph published with Cornell University Press and titled The Natural Border: Bounding Migrant Farmwork in the Black Mediterranean.

Caporalato Capital

On a particularly hot day of August 2018, I met Idrissa*. I was talking to one of my acquaintances in the ghetto of Borgo San Nicola*, a run down and abandoned ruin in the middle of the fields of Basilicata, South Italy. Idrissa, who was visibly inebriated, asked me for money to buy him a drink. I asked him to wait. I had met Idrissa a few times before: a young man from Burkina Faso, he lived in a ramshackle room on a farm in the vicinity of the ghetto. Since a couple of years, he had been working as a day labourer on South Italy’s food farms, picking tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables under the boiling sun. My acquaintance, who had come from Burkina Faso to Italy ten years earlier, asked Idrissa if he had finally decided to accept the work, he had offered him: a day of picking tomatoes in neighbouring field. Idrissa shrugged, standing aloof for a moment in the sun. Then, he answered: “my fate is in the hands of God.” Severely, my acquaintance responded: “your fate may be in the hands of God, but K. does not live in heaven, you know” – after which he left and drove off in his second-hand car. 

In Italy, there are tens of thousands of young men like Idrissa. They represent what the labour unions call Italy’s vulnerable agricultural labour force: subject to severe labour exploitation, and marginalized socially and spatially, their number has risen exponentially over the past twenty years. According to FLAI-CGIL, around 180.000 of the plus-minus 400.000 ‘foreign’ (without Italian nationality) workers in this sector meet these criteria of vulnerability and marginality; around 40 percent being refugees and asylum seekers – mostly young men from South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. These numbers by far exceed the formal hires the Italian government permits through its so-called ‘Flow Decrees’ (Decreti Flussi), in 2023 around 83.000, 44.000 of which concern so-called seasonal labour. Instead, agri-food workers are typically recruited through all kinds of mediating infrastructures that sustain the operations of contemporary supply chain agri-food capitalism: illegal gangmasters (in Italian caporali), ‘cooperatives of convenience’, and, in a growing number of cases, migrant reception centres. In Idrissa’s case, the piecemeal work was offered to him through a tight hierarchy made up of K., a Burkinabè intermediary (commonly called capo nero) and their Italian superior (caporale). 

ghetto of Boreano II – before the eviction (google earth scan)

Yet while the illegal gangmasters are often fetishized in the media and in decision-making circles as the main culprits of labour exploitation in agri-food chains, my recent research with Domenico Perrotta shows the functionality of this infrastructure as a grey space that sustains and reproduces inequalities in agri-food labour markets. Furthermore, the persistence of caporalato capitalism goes paired with a concentration of capital in what Philip McMichael calls the ‘corporate food regime’ (even if the discussion remains open on the terminology).

In Europe, for example, scholars have noted a growing monopolization of food production, distribution and marketization by a few powerful players who tend to dominate the entire value chain of agri-food business. As dominant players in global food markets today, supermarket retailers typically avoid direct involvement in production. Instead, they prefer to specialise in controlling marketing and supply chains through quality standards, branding and logistics while they outsource production towards smallholder farmers who are able to diversify risks and subject their production to the conditions imposed by their clients. This has led to a steep dispossession from below: the growing concentration of farm property in the hands of private smallholders whose production is tied exclusively to the retailers’ supply chains. Recent global crises – of the Sars-CoV-2 or Covid-19 virus and the war in Ukraine in particular – have made this tendency even more visible: research by the via Campesina network, by Oxfam and by UNITE conform this tendency of land property concentration: compared to 15 million firms in 2003, only 9.1 million companies currently farm 157 million hectares of land, equivalent to 38 percent of agricultural land in the region (according to Eurostat 2020 data). Italy is a typical case of such dispossession: between 1990 and 2022, the total agricultural surface (superficie agricola totale: SAT) per agricultural firm has expanded from 7.6 hectares to 14.5 hectares, while in during 1982-2022, the number of agricultural enterprises has dropped from 3 to little more than 1 million.

Boreano II – after the eviction (google earth scan)

After having commodified the land as a resource for capital’s gain and exploiting it with ever-more insidious techniques of fertilization, seed and crop modification, global agri-food corporations are now intoxicating the planet even further through their deliberate precarization of human labour. During the pandemic, the question arose why agri-food production is not being automated more than it is today. While governments around the globe proceeded with the closure of territorial borders to prevent the corona virus from spreading and negatively affecting national economies, we all witnessed the importance of precarious migrant labour to keep agribusiness going. In Thailand, thousands of migrants from neighbouring Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos returned home at the height of the rice growing season, leaving the country’s large monocultures unattended. Australian horticulture industries saw their labour force evaporate due to Covid visa restriction. Fearing a shortage of 80.000 workers, the British farmers’ Association launched an appeal to constitute a Land Army. To support agricultural production, European agri-businesses were actively trying to recruit students and pensioners to replace the foreign labourers from Eastern Europe. Speaking of a shortage of 200.000 workers, the Italian association Confagricoltura demanded the establishment of “green corridors” to facilitate workers’ mobility. Agribusiness’ calls for assistance ultimately prompted the European Commission to include agricultural workers in the category of “indispensable workers” within its Guidelines issued on 30 March 2020.

Despite these measures, however, the vulnerability of agri-food workers continued to rise during the pandemic, As I discuss in my monograph The Natural Border, to the extent that several medical and socio-judicial organizations denounced the lack of interest in the health of seasonal workers from the part of European governments. In Italy, MEDU and MSF criticized the government’s lack of interest in the health of seasonal workers. In Germany and Italy, meat processing factories and industrial slaughterhouses became prime places of contagion because of the close proximity of migrant workers and lack of protection measures. Yet, while these contagions highlighted the vulnerability of the corporate food regime as well as our global capacities to guarantee access to food in a time of viral crisis, this narrative does not emphasize enough the toxic labour regime that channels and captures workers’ lives: in order to keep workers tied to the land and to their precarious labour conditions, agribusiness increasingly depends on the spread of toxic borders. 

My article for Geopolitics shows two complementary dynamics in this context. One of these concerns the territorial stratification of the agricultural workforce. In the context of agri-business, I note how, by this time, the political technique of territorial residency (in short: of residence papers) has become a deliberate instrument of labour disciplining and control, more concretely, to territorially stratify and carve up the labour force. This stratification often assumes a racialized gender dimension. In the context I have studied, which is the South of Italy (but for a wider, comparative perspective I refer to the project I coordinated during 2015-2018), I see two interrelated trends. 

Stratified Borders

On the one hand, migrant workers are forced to internalize the effects of their geographic segregation. In short: while agri-businesses actively exploit their labour, state governments deny workers their fundamental rights to health, to unemployment and social benefits. Concretely this means that non-EU workers (so, workers who do not have a European nationality but still make up the majority of the active labour force in this sector) are increasingly trapped between their need to have territorial residence papers renewed and the impossibility to do so outside the channels imposed by corporate capital. In Italy, informal migrant workers (including asylum seekers and refugees) who want to regularize their status as workers are obliged to demand their residence papers through their employers. This is also the main reason why a majority of working refugees in agriculture has preferred not to choose this bureaucratic trajectory (during the last round in 2021-22, only 15.000 regularization demands were filed by farm workers).

The impossibility to acquire a resident status outside of the overburdened asylum system de facto places such refugee workers in a state of legal limbo. Migrant workers who are neither refugee or asylum seekers, but who do want their residence renewed, however, need to show a formal employment contract to do so. This feudal system – in which not free labourers but the employers indirectly determine who has a right to residency and who has not – notoriously binds the workers not just to the land but also, and increasingly, to the hand that exploits them. It is quite significant that for refugees and asylum seekers, who – as I said – constitute a growing labour reserve in Italian agri-food firms, residence papers have acquired the status of yet another racket to deal with for these workers, besides the restrained access to housing and to employment, according to a first nation-wide enquiry approved by the Italian Labour Ministry.

border waste I

At the very minimum, these data destabilize the predominant narrative around the relation between economic and political migration: as I show in my monograph, asylum seekers and refugees are frequently forced to become economic migrants out of a sheer lack of alternatives to make a living in their new ‘host’ society. The exponential denial of asylum renewal by the Italian Interior Ministry during the past half decade (from 60 to 80 percent in 2016-2018) seems to consolidate the trend, indicated by Dines and Rigo, of the refugeeization of farm labour – a term which is meant to highlight not only a numeric shift in the composition of the agricultural work force, as I indicated earlier, but also, ad maybe even more importantly, the radically conflicting grounds upon which the stratification of labour is constructed in the context of neoliberal market reforms. Speaking more widely, this trend calls us back to observation, made by Cedric Robinson and other Black Marxists in the 1980s, that capitalism is very well capable of coexisting and articulating itself alongside other modes of production Despite many crucial differences between now and then – the replacement of slavery with other forms of unfreedom being one of them – race often remains a key factor of differentiation between worthy and unworthy lives in the contemporary after-lives of early modern plantations. 

On the other hand, in fact, I notice both a systematic externalization of the cost of labour reproduction towards workers who remain racially segregated as a consequence of the tightening grip of agribusiness on agricultural labour. In an economy that is still largely sustained by small-to-medium family enterprises, at least in Italy, famers households typically enjoy the benefits of social welfare through their formal, perennial employment. But, as my study shows, this comes at a high price for non-family members employed in the enterprise. Migrant workers instead continue to pay for their own reproduction through the expansion (both economically and geographically) of an informal economy that serves to cover the needs that are not taken care of – nor by capital nor by the state. 

border waste II

An emblematic illustration of this dynamic is the spread of the ghetto – a designation Sub-Saharan African workers use to define their temporary labour camps, constructed with makeshift materials, and usually far removed from the infrastructures of modern urbanity. In the Mediterranean context, such sites are often invoked as an extreme form of social marginality, if not as hotbeds of organized criminality. Because of their exponential growth (the Labour Ministry report estimates their number around 150, hosting around 10.000 informal migrant workers), during the past decade, such ghettos have increasingly become a thorn in the eye of public administrations who, with varying success, have started to eradicate and evict them. The solution state governments offer is a merely logistical one: in order to host agri-food’s temporary labour force, planning efforts have concentrated on the construction of tent and container camps managed through the Red Cross, Caritas, and other emergency organizations. Despite the active use of territorial residency as an instrument of labour discipline (since 2014, following the new Housing Plan, squatters get their residence papers formally denied – and seasonal workers can only renew their residence papers when they reside in a formal labour camp), a majority of migrant workers in Italy’s agri-food zones refuses to live in state containers and prefers instead to dwell in the ghetto. This is also why many ghettos across the country are temporary only by name, since many of the goods and services that are neither offered by public administrations nor by corporate capital, are operationalized here. In the ghettos I visited, a loose hierarchy of intermediaries was responsible for organizing food and sex work, alongside the accommodation and servicing of seasonal workers; transport, electricity, and water supply all were paid by the workers themselves. 

border waste III

From here on, the lesson to be learned is pretty straightforward: even if public administrators continue to designate migrant workers ghettos as free zones situated outside the perimeters of the formal market economy (and even of modern civilization) my research shows how these are quite fundamental places that bear the cost of a labour force no-one situated within these same perimeters is willing to pay for. In that way, however, migrant ghettos continue to act indirectly as a subsidy to agri-food retailers who reap the largest profits of the food crisis we are told to be living. In my view, deconstructing the toxic narrative of this crisis – as a crisis of sustenance, and thus an emergency that requires more food to be produced, at ever greater speed and with ever expanding exceptional measures – becomes a priority not only in human but also in planetary terms. This dimension, which I call natural racialization, I will now turn to in the last section of this post.

Wasted Lives

Natural racialization refers to the process through which migrant labour infrastructures are actively ‘naturalized’ as places of Blackness that stand outside the perimeters of white, European civilization. This process involves two complementary dynamics: after having transformed the land into a resource for capital’s gain, state governments and corporate capital actively marginalize the remnant space as either a form of ‘pristine’ and ‘untouched’ ‘wildlife’ that should be cherished and protected (usually through new forms of commodification) or, on the contrary, as a devalued margin, a jungle, a dangerous place that remains impenetrable for modern civilization. In the margins of the corporate food production regime that tends to dominate the Italian countryside, migrant workers proceedingly occupy this marginal space as a kind of fugitive site: a place to recast connections in a world that is characterized by brokenenness and disruption, and a place from where to invent oneself anew in a context of constant denial and marginalization. Not by surprise, in fact, the term Jungle (broussemacquis) figure prominently in migrants’ designation of these occupied places as a kind of open frontier, where outcomes become unpredictable and the contours of new life worlds being are traced. 

At the same time, government planning efforts tend to further intoxicate migrant’s life worlds through an active politics of dispersal and destruction. In Basilicata and Puglia, where I carried out my research, five large ghettos have been evicted in the past four years by state security forces, leading to the displacement of an estimated 1500 people (on top of the 1500 calculated by MSF in its 2018 report). Strikingly, this has not led to a formalization of workers’ employment or accommodation, on the contrary: the same makeshift dwellings usually re-appear within a matter of weeks, typically at the start of the new agricultural season. This constant cycle of eviction and resettlement thus contributes to a further precarization of already detrimental conditions. Next to the acute health problems farm workers face as a result of the long working hours and unhygienic living conditions (in its 2019 report on the Calabrian plane of Goia Tauro, a global centre of orange and citrus production, the medical charity MEDU observed widespread tract inflammation, mainly related to climatic conditions and the impossibility of staying in healthy environments, followed by osteoarticular pathologies associated with carrying out particularly strenuous work, digestive pathologies, in particular esophagitis and gastritis, and skin pathologies like mycosis, allergic dermatitis, and dermatosis due to a major exposure to pesticides), migrant farm workers’ living environments are frequently exposed to hazards, like fires (which have caused several deaths), mudslides and floods (as a result of rainfall and erosion). As contemporary archaeologists Hicks and Mallet note for the Calais Jungle, the naturalization of migrant lives (intended here as second-order nature) thus tends to produce a hostile environment, which, as part of Europe’s repressive border politics, functions as a debilitating mechanism, a form of slow violence that actively deforms the characteristics of migrant’s reduced living spaces and, de facto, makes these places unliveable. 

border waste IV

Towards an Immersive Geography

Contemporary archaeology offers a potentially fertile place from where to make sense of this emerging political ecology of toxic border regimes. In collaboration with MIC|C, a small, anonymous collective whose work I describe in the Geopolitics article, I have tried to pinpoint the logic of dispersal that sustains the expansion of an ecological border regime in Italy’s agrarian landscape since 2014 – the results of which we present on this website. The result is an immersive geography of farm workers life worlds that are connected through trajectories of acute marginality and labour extraction.

Scavenging through the piles of waste of evicted ghetto settlements indeed makes one acutely aware of the violent intoxication that characterizes Europe’s current border politics in the rural margins. The scaled toxicity produced through this spatial marginalization in my view indicates a stratigraphy of power that is not highlighted enough in contemporary research on territorial borders. Paraphrasing Marco Armiero, I could say that the relationship of wasting migrant life worlds produces migrant workers as a racialized group located outside the contours of formal industrial development, while including them into the techno-stratigraphy of wasted matter that piles up at the end of a deliberate process of extraction, of the land, and of the labour that brings it into fruition. Thinking of borders through waste in my view thus has the potential to foreground wasting as a socio-ecological relationship that both creates and reproduces wasted people ad wasted places in the context of contemporary supply chain capitalism. 

border waste V

Sars-CoV-2 and (mobile) food (producers): who cares?

One of the interesting – and worrying – dimensions of the corona (officially COVID-19, or Sars-CoV-2) containment measures has been their reliance on food retailers. Despite all the social distance measures and mobility restrictions nation states are now imposing across the world, people still need food. And retailers have been crucial, sometimes even the only legitimate resorts to get it. But is anyone asking which consequences this generates for those who are producing it? In this post I am asking what is happening to agricultural labour at a time of corona crisis across the Mediterranean, which for some time now has gained the status as one of the most important provider of fresh food to European markets.

In Italy, the corona crisis is producing significant effects not only on retail businesses, but also on agricultural labour. In 2018, for instance, the federation of food producers estimated, about three quarters of fresh and packaged agri-food products were sold to large retail chains. One of the important measures taken by the Italian government has been to centralise food consumption during the current crisis. In annex to the Ministerial decree, signed on 11 March, a list appears of what the government regards as legitimate food retailers. Interestingly, these include supermarkets, discounts and grocery shops -but not food markets nor acquisition groups. This unique reliance sounds strange at a time when food supply networks may come under increasing pressure. Without much consultation, several mayors have univocally closed down weekly food markets in their cities. This has generated an even closer dependence of their citizens on large-scale distribution networks. Despite the governments’ explicit call not to hoard prime necessities, every decree has been accompanied by a systematic assault on supermarkets and a rapidly emerging crisis in commodity supplies.

two effects of COVID-19: hoarding, and empty food shelves

A direct consequence of this dependency on supermarket distribution has been a rising nervousness in the agricultural districts. In rare agreement, labour unions, agricultural entrepreneurs and voluntary associations have been ringing the alarm bell to denounce the lack of assistance and call for preventive safety measures. Ironically, the agricultural sector has been designated as ‘essential’ to keep the country going in the latest Ministerial update, alongside transport and logistics -but assistance to workers has been structurally lacking. Not coincidentally, these sectors represent a labour force of predominantly foreign origin. In the province of Cuneo (Piemonte), the Capitanata (Puglia), in Castel Volturno (Campania), the Vulture (Basilicata) and in the Piana di Gioia Tauro (Calabria), where thousands of foreign labourers work to pick fruits and vegetables for Italy’s home-staying citizens, NGOs and labour unions are currently assisting workers in the margins, pending institutional support. Worries are now rising that a COVID contagion may spread in these districts like a fire.

An extra source of stress for those who are already struggling to work for the day is the limited freedom to move around. In the informal settlements of Rignano and San Ferdinando for example, where up to 500 people permanently reside without access to basic services, humanitarian organisation INTERSOS and EMERGENCY have set up mobile monitoring units to assist mobile workers. Other organisations like the RED CROSS and CARITAS, who previously managed official labour camps, are struggling to meet governmental criteria. The result has been a rising informality among workers who already remain invisible to state institutions.

To reach West-African workers active in the agricultural sector, EMERGENCY has now produced a video in pidgin English that informs them about possible anti-COVID precautions.

Similarly to Italy, the continuous arrival of Syrian refugees in Turkey has led to a refugeeization of the agricultural labour force. Basically, this means that refugees now take on the precarious day jobs that domestic and other migrant workers would usually do. Of the 3.57 million Syrian refugees present in Turkey, only a small part live in official refugee camps. In turn, a growing majority has been filling the ranks of farm workers on the countryside, while trying to find a living in livestock production, greenhouse cultivation, and the harvesting and processing of various crops (like olives, cotton, hazelnuts, tea, pistachio, citrus fruits and stone fruits, vegetables). While relations between domestic and migrant workers have generally remained peaceful, recently there have been sporadic violent incidents against migrant residents. Now that Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan is rising its pressure on Syrian refugees to leave the country, the conditions of Turkish agriculture may soon face an unexpected downfall as its labour power is siphoning towards Europe.

In the meantime in neighbouring Greece, where migrants have been supporting the agricultural economy since decades, the patrolling of Europe’s Southern border is now rapidly turning from repressive, to violent. Before sealing its border completely in response to the global corona outbreak, Greek government forces have been caught repeatedly in violent anti-migrant actions (in one such event on the Greek-Turkish border, one man was allegedly killed by either Greek soldiers or ‘armed locals’ who actively assist them in their task – as the research group Forensic Architecture documented in the attached video). Urged by European governments, Frontex is planning to send more guards to the region now, together with vehicles, ships and surveillance technology provided and financed by European member states.

While anti-migrant violence is arousing protests among human rights groups and advocates, the question how rising border repression may affect the current Sars-CoV-2 outbreak remains so far unanswered. In Turkey, Greece, and Italy, farm production depends ever more significantly on the effort of flexible, precarious labourers who, at rising rates, are recruited among refugees who are either blocked or killed at the border. While the corona virus has certainly made the world aware of its intense interconnections, this may be yet another, important question to figure out in the near future.

(c) Beatrice Clippa-Muti (FLAI/CGIL)

Contagion

I share a reflection by Adia Benton on the development of the recent COVID-19 emergency, which I think is worth reflecting on:

Very rightly I think, Benton argues against the conventional outbreak narrative, where a new, deadly virus emerges in the scandalous intermingling of Asian or African native species and ‘man’, circulates along well-traveled business routes, and is unleashed on the Western world through illicit intimacies. This linear geography – which she picks up from the famous movie Contagion – strongly misses the point about the way the recent COVID-19 disease spreads and affects the world. Viruses move in bodies, she notes, and thus the relative freedom of certain bodies to move across borders as well as the perceived risk associated to this mobility definitely deserves more attention at a time when national security and territorial borders appear to become again a dominant paradigm in international politics.

At a time when governments increasingly wage their wars against the national contagion of a disease, which -as the epidemiologists keep repeating – ‘respects no borders’, it becomes clearer and clearer that its mobility is actually more networked and rhizomatic than state governments are willing to accept. Mind for example the recent Malta, Slovenia and Austria closures with Italy as well as the Trump administration’s continuing flirtation with the same idea. Such territorial containment and its related, racist imagery of the evil outsider may well help ‘put a face’ on an otherwise unidentifiable danger, but it risks to create an illusion of national security at a time when mobilities are regulated increasingly through other, more subtle technologies of diversification and control.

One small irony in this context has been the progressive acknowledgement that the infamous Patient One, a businessman who was hunted down for weeks in the Italian region of Lombardy, actually brought the virus over from neighbouring Germany; on the way, infections of the same cluster (named Germany/BavPat1/2020) have been identified throughout Switzerland, Finland, Mexico and Brazil. Although the evidence on this cluster is far from definite, it appears to confirm Benton’s thesis that indeed certain forms of border promiscuity and certain forms of border containment are accelerating the wider infectious consequences of COVID-19 throughout the world.

Another interesting point Benton raises, concerns the largely neglected political ecology of contagion. At a time when humanity is thought to have acculturated nature completely and the consequences of its extractivist expansion are spreading throughout the planet, the COVID-19 emergency does force us to reflect a bit more deeply about the wider implications of these anthropogenic interventions, not just in terms of global ‘risk management’ but also in terms of nature’s response. Benton uses a prop from the 2011 film Contagion, which ironically may contain some elements for such future reflection: the Nipah virus the film talks about takes off from the intimate contact between a bat, driven away from the tropical forest (literally flying off from a chopped palm tree), a slaughtered pig and a business women who shakes the chef’s hand in a casino restaurant before setting off on her global travel, contaminating the rest of the world. Next to the openly gendered and racialised imagery this film projects, it also poses two crucial questions for us to answer in a preferably not so distant future:

  • what level of (calculable) risk is humanity globally willing to accept to sustain its current level of (certainly unequal and diversified) growth and welfare?
  • And what kind of interventions are needed to distribute this risk in a geographically sustainable manner?

Felandina eviction

Two days ago, the mayor of Bernalda, Domenico Tataranno, officially announced the imminent eviction of the migrant ocupation La Felandina, located in the industrial zone of Metaponto. The building has been occupied since a year by approximately 600 migrant workers, a majority of which are in possession of regular residence papers, according to official police sources. The migrants offer their labour to agricultural enterprises in the area. Since a few years the Basilicata and Calabria coastline has effectively become Southern Italy’s grocery garden: from the famous strawberries harvested in early Spring to the fruit and vegetables that are cultivated here over the Summer and Autumn, production continues throughout the year. Farmers sell their produce under often unfavourable contracts to the big distribution networks through intermediaries located in Puglia and Campania.

Speaking at a public meeting, the mayor said he took his decision after a long series of meetings with the Prefecture, Town Hall, and competent authorities – notwithstanding the acknowledgement, by the territiorial prefecture, that migrant workers who come to the area have difficulty finding alternative forms of accommodation. “It will be up to the State, through the security forces, to implement the eviction in practice. We will try, with the collaboration of those poor people, to find the best solution from a logistic point of view,” Tataranno concluded.

In March this year, the head of Basilicata’s Migrant Policy Coordination, Pietro Simonetti officially promised a temporary reception facility for 150 seasonal migrant workers, which so far has not been concretely defined. In the meantime, therefore, migrant workers have no other alternative other than occupying a new site.

Migrant tent camps in Metaponto, March 2018

It is not the first time it comes to such tensions in the area of Metaponto. Already in 2018, the mayor of Bernalda ordered the clearance of various tent camps located under the town’s bridges and in the many abandoned warehouses in the area. Like much of Basilicata, the area continues to be affected by a progressive abandonment, driven by a lack of institutional capacities and employment opportunities. Specifically, the 2018 eviction followed an open letter in which Metaponto’s residents denounced the, in their view, “disproportionate” presence of immigrant citizens who come to the area to work. Declaring a state of emergency, they asked the mayor to restore law and order in the area. 

The same year, two agricultural entrepreneurs and one gangmaster based in Metaponto had been officially indighted for illicit labour recruitment, which has become an offence under the new anti-racket legislation. Altogether, these events reveal once more the paradox of the current legislative context, which regards migrant labour intermediation as a criminal offense, but at the same time refuses to address its root causes beyond a mere logistical perspective. 

La Felandina (c) OMB

Moukef

Reading my regular reports on Italian tomato plantations, a colleague who attended a seminar on migration & agriculture in Agadir recently (pdf here) alerted me to an accident involving several ‘moukef‘, or informal workers, in Morocco. The accident caused the death of 14 women and 30 serious injuries in the plain of Kenitra, in the north of the country, which is famous for its strawberry production.

The ‘moukef‘ involves a form of informal employment for thousands of – predominantly female – workers who find temporary jobs in agriculture: not just in Kenitra but also the hothouses of Morocco’s Chtouka Aït Baha province. The province is covered with hundreds of burning plastic tunnels, where a modern form of slavery unfolds at the service of the country’s increasingly booming industrial export agriculture.

The ritual of labour recruitment appears to be similar to other plantation economies in Europe and the Americas: every day a handful of women who gather on an open labour market are selected by a ‘cabrane’, an informal recruiting agent whose mission is to bring them to the agricultural estates. The journey on board of the pickup trucks is full of danger for these women, who regularly become victim of road accidents.

The accident of 3 April is not an isolated case. Numerous times both local news outlets and agricultural workers associations have denounced the conditions of these workers.

Only last Summer, a similar accident involving 4 African day workers had caused a national outcry in Italy while their van crashed into a truck close to the city of Foggia, leaving the load of tomatoes spread out on the road pavement.

Appointments with ‘legality’: Italy’s slums


Another tragedy has affected African labourers in Italy’s plains this month. On 6 March, bulldozers demolished the San Ferdinando workers’ ghetto, located in the centre of Calabria’s orange plantations and Calabria’s Ndrangheta organized crime stronghold. The ghetto, which has claimed the lives of three people over the last year, had become a thorn in the eye of Italy’s Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, who has ordered the erection of a tent camp as well as a restoration of public order in the area. 

In 2011 the research team Bitter Oranges recorded living conditions in San Ferdinando in this video.

The eviction of San Ferdinando (close to Rosarno, which has been termed one of Italy’s new slavery sites) forms part of Italy’s interior minister’s promise to move “from words to actions.” Matteo Salvini is also the head of the right populist League party, whose members are currently establishing an institutional alliance with the European Far Right. Since his election he has repeatedly declared his intention to “raze to the ground” Italy’s shantytowns, including Rom and refugee settlements. Over the last year, more than a dozen such camps have been demolished, including the Baobab Experience in Rome, which hosted over hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers, as well as various Sinti and Rom settlements around Turin, Pisa and the Italian capital.

The official motivation for the eviction has been one of insecurity and a lack human dignity. But the Caritas settlement does not appears to offer much of an alternative. On 22 March, another person died in its tent camp situated only a few meters away from the old ghetto. The victim’s name is Sylla Nouma, a man in his thirties. “We hoped not to deplore situations like this any more,” the mayor Andrea Tripodi declared to the press. “It was an unexpected tragedy,” Vincenzo Alampi, the local Caritas director added. Although the causes of the fire are still be ascertained, a possible reason might have been a short circuit departing form the electric wires located in the corner of the tent.

The government-directed evictions, which Matteo Salvini systematically calls “appointments with legality”, particularly appear to target precarious workers’ settlements located in the heart of Southern Italy’s vegetable and fruit plantations nowadays. After the forced eviction of Rignano Garganico and Boreano last year (both situated in the tomato districts of Foggia and the Alto Bradano), the bulldozers have started moving to the South now. Last May local authorities destroyed the informal labour settlement of Campobello di Mazara, in Sicily –leaving workers no choice but to occupy new buildings: while 128 inhabitants were haphazardly hosted in a camp managed by the Red Cross, others have started to erect smaller settlements in the periphery of neighbouring Castelveltrano, in the heart of Sicily’s olive plantations. A similar fate now awaits San Ferdinando’s settlers. At the time of the eviction, the local prefect estimated the number of slum residents at 1.592 people, according to the Repubblica newspaper. While 200 were immediately transferred to official migrant reception centres, around 900 found temporary accommodation a new tent camp managed by Caritas. Local authorities have announced 30 housing units to accommodate future migrants coming to the area. But the mayor has repeatedly warned against housing migrants without also providing for local residents in this area stricken by poverty and criminality. In the meantime, the Interior Ministry has promised 350.000 euro’s to “restore liveability” in the area of San Ferdinando.

The official motivation for the eviction has been one of insecurity and a lack human dignity. But the Caritas settlement does not appears to offer much of an alternative. On 22 March, another person died in its tent camp situated only a few meters away from the old ghetto. The victim’s name is Sylla Nouma, a man in his thirties. “We hoped not to deplore situations like this any more,” the mayor Andrea Tripodi declared to the press. “It was an unexpected tragedy,” Vincenzo Alampi, the local Caritas director added. Although the causes of the fire are still be ascertained, a possible reason might have been a short circuit departing form the electric wires located in the corner of the tent.

An unexpected tragedy? Fire in Rignano Garganico January 2017

Because of pervasive uncertainty and a lack of consideration by official policies, more and more migrants now have started to move to other vegetable and fruit plantations in the area. Last month, some West African migrants already found refuge in a previous industrial plant in the plains of Metaponto, in neighbouring Basilicata, where the strawberry harvest is currently happening at full speed. Local associations are currently assisting the squatters with social and health services in the absence of official lodging facilities. Most likely, the slum will experience the same fate in a couple of months, when strawberries will have been picked, and the tomato planting season will begin once again in Foggia and Basilicata

La Felandina squat in Metaponto (c) OMB

Self-harm

courtesy OMB

Still more news about the human rights violations internal to the Italian migrant detention system continues to reach the public. In a joint press release, the coalition of LasciateCIEntrare, Legal Team and Osservatorio Migranti Basilicata (OMB) denounce the CPR (Centro di Permanenza per il Rimpatrio) of Palazzo san Gervasio as a site of repression and abuse. On the phone with a local news site, the spokesperson of LasciateCIEntrare, Yasmine Yaya mentions the presence of some particularly vulnerable migrants who are trying to seek asylum and need urgent assistance. At the same time, the organisation denounces the high degrees of psychological stress that leads some inhabitants to purposively inflict self-harm and attempt suicide. In the afternoon of 26 April, a Syrian Kurdish citizen threatened to kill himself; while two other people, perhaps of Tunisian nationality, threatened to hang themselves in another migrant reception center. Final proof of the migrant rights violations arrived a few days later, with the unconditional release of all 42 inmates of the CPR in Palazzo. Interviewed by the same press agency, the lawyer of the OMB Angela Bitonti, confirms that she and her assistants managed to liberate these citizens because the detention measures were “illegitimate”, as they were based on an alleged social danger that did not persist (remember the migrants had been detained on presumption of having set fire to the reception center in Lampedusa). “From now on, they are asylum seekers, for whom the application of the rule of international protection applies… Many of these people should be helped,” Bitonti concludes, remembering that “we are dealing with human lives, with human beings, to whom life can not be denied.”

courtesy OMB: ‘unfortunately self-harm is common among detained migrants,’ says Yasmin Yaya of LasciateCIEntrare

Migrant abuse (cont’d)

A consortium of associations led by the Coalition for Freedom and Civil Rights (CLID), the Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI), and Indiewatch confirms earlier findings about the systematic abuse against migrants, including children, at two locations in Sicily and Potenza that were mentioned in a previous post: Lampedusa and Palazzo San Gervasio. The report (English summary here) says migrants and asylum seekers at the two sites have been victims of human rights violations and the right to defence, as well as inhumane living conditions and violence. Specifically referring to Palazzo, ASGI notes what it calls “very serious violations of the right to defence, which impeded the migrants from being assisted by their attorneys during the confirmation hearings.” In the meantime, an attempted escape by 22 detainees from the detention center yesterday has resulted in a mass search operation by the police, resulting in the arrest fr 12 of them. Human rights organisations are worried about the increasing repression of those who remain internalised. A complete report (in Italian) about the joint visit by Campagna LasciateCIEntrare and Osservatorio Migranti Basilicata, together with Europarlamentarian Eleonora Forenza has been made available here.