Misery of Italy’s migrants grows not from virus but lockdown


A man sits outside a house where 46 men, from Nigeria and Ghana live in Castel Volturno, near Naples, southern Italy. (Photo: AP)

They are known as “the invisibles”: Undocumented African migrants who, even before the coronavirus outbreak plunged Italy into crisis, barely scraped by as day laborers, prostitutes, freelance hairdressers and seasonal farm hands.

Locked down for two months in crumbling apartments in a mob-infiltrated town north of Naples, their hand-to-mouth existence has grown even more precarious with no work, no food and no hope.

Italy is preparing to reopen some business and industry on Monday in a preliminary easing of its virus shutdown. But there is no indication that “the invisibles” of Castel Volturno will get back to work anytime soon, and no evidence that the government’s social nets will ease their misery.

“I need help. Help me. For my children, for my husband, I need help,” said a tearful Mary Sado Ofori, a Nigerian hairdresser and mother of three who has been holed up in her overcrowded apartment block. She ran out of milk for her 6-month old and is getting by on handouts from a friend.

A patchwork team of volunteers, medics, a priest, a cultural mediator and local city hall officials are trying to make sure “the invisibles” aren’t forgotten entirely, delivering groceries daily to their choked apartments and trying to provide health care. But the need is outstripping the resources.

“There is an emergency within the COVID emergency which is a social emergency,” said Sergio Serraiano, who runs a health clinic in town. “We knew this was going to happen, and we were waiting for it from the beginning.”

The virus struck hardest in Italy’s prosperous industrial north, where the first homegrown case was registered Feb. 21 and where most of the infected and 27,000 dead were recorded. The bulk of the government’s attention and response focused on reinforcing the health care system there to withstand the onslaught of tens of thousands of sick.

Castel Volturno is another world entirely, a 27-kilometer (17-mile) strip of land running along the sea north of Naples that is controlled by the Camorra organized crime syndicate. Here there have only been about a dozen COVID cases and none among the migrants.

But Castel Volturno has other problems that the COVID crisis has exacerbated. Known as the “Terra dei Fuochi” or land of fires, Castel Volturno and surrounding areas have unusually high cancer rates, blamed on the illegal dumping and burning of toxic waste that have polluted the air, sea and underground wells.

Here the mob runs drugs and waste disposal, and officials have warned the clans are primed to exploit the economic misery that the virus shutdowns have caused.

It is also here that “the invisibles” have settled over the years, many after crossing the Mediterranean from Libya in smugglers boats hoping for a better life. No one knows their numbers for certain, but estimates run as high as 600,000 nationally. In Castel Volturno, a city with an official population of around 26,000, there are estimates of 10,000 to 20,000.

The men get by on day jobs picking tomatoes, lemons or oranges, or in construction where they earn 25 euros (US$28) a day. The women sell their bodies, or if they are lucky, work as freelance hairstylists or selling trinkets and cigarette lighters on the street.

In normal times, the men gather at 4 a.m. at the roundabouts that dot the Via Domiziana main drag, waiting for trucks to pick them up and take them to farms or construction sites. But since the lockdown, even that illegal off-the-books system is known as “caporalato” has ground to a halt.

The migrants, who already were living precariously without official residency or work permits, now can’t pay their rent or buy food.

“We don’t have electricity. We don’t have water. We don’t have documents,” said Jimmy Donko, a 43-year-old Ghanaian migrant who lives with 46 Nigerian and Ghanaian men in a dark, rundown house where filthy dishes fill the kitchen sink and old blankets serve as curtains over broken windows.

To bathe, wash and flush the toilet, he and his housemates walk 300 meters (yards) with buckets to a fountain and back.

The level of desperation is apparent everywhere: With no electricity or refrigeration, food spoils quickly and is cooked immediately. On a recent day, cooked fish and goat heads were left out on shelves. Outside, the chicken was being cooked on a makeshift stove made from old mattress springs.

A consortium of unions and nonprofit organizations has called for a general amnesty to legalize undocumented migrants. Government ministers have vowed to help even those in the black-market economy survive the emergency. A proposed law would legalize migrant farm workers for the strawberry, peach and melon harvests, given that Italy’s legal seasonal farm hands have been kept at home in Eastern Europe because of virus travel restrictions.

But no proposals have made it into law, and there is fierce opposition nationwide and in tiny Castel Volturno to any moves to legalize the African workforce currently here.

“We are talking about 20,000 illegal migrants in a population of 26,000 inhabitants – that makes it almost equal one foreigner for one Italian,” said Mayor Luigi Petrella, of the right-wing, anti-migrant Brothers of Italy party. “It seems absurd to propose something like that.”

That said, city hall is working to feed the masses, teaming up with the local Centro Fernandes refugee center to bring bags of food each day to the locked-down, out-of-work migrants.

The Rev. Daniele Moschetti, a former missionary in Nairobi, Kenya, now delivers groceries to the poor in his homeland.

“It was different when I was in Nairobi,” he said, during a break in his grocery rounds. “There was poverty, but it was more human. Here there is something diabolical about all this, something evil in how all these people are treated.”