tent-polis; tent city
The first thing you notice about the tendopoli, before seeing anything or anyone, is the smell. Humidity is high after several days of heavy rain on the southern Calabrese coast line, and it shows. Tucked in a maze of deserted industrial backroads, past a retired oil mill and the old “La Rognetta” orange production factory now home to some 300 migrants, the tendopoli stretches over several abandoned lots of land. It’s late spring, and most of the shantytown’s population is still in Naples for tomato season. Located in the deep south in the toe of Italy’s boot about an hour outside the nearest city of Reggio Calabria, this shoddy settlement housing West African migrants was never intended to last long. Hand-erected tents stand next to government-donated ones and are home to migrants hailing primarily from Mali, Togo, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Senegal, and Ivory Coast.
Seasonal employment for those calling the tendopoli home is field work, picking the oranges eponymous to the region. An estimated 1500 to 2000 seasonal migrants work in Rosarno and the surrounding areas during high season, lasting from November through February. An average of 25€ for 12 hours of work sustains migrants during orange season, though work is limited to about three days a week due to the seasonal saturation of migrant workers. Harvest work is carried out without legal employment contracts, making it close to impossible for the migrants to alert Italian authorities to labor grievances and exploitation. Those who stay in Rosarno during the summer months have intermittent work at best; many struggle to eat one meal a day. According to Grazia Naletto, president of Lunaria, a nonprofit aimed at gaining economic and social justice for migrants living in Italy, seasonal workers in the region have lived in intimidation and squalor for the last twenty years.
The quotidian oppression and violence synonymous with the lives of seasonal migrant workers is a direct consequence of ‘Ndrangheta influence, considered by Europol to be among the richest and most dangerous organized crime groups in the world. The organization’s influence in legitimate business and it’s role in global cocaine trafficking give it a power unmatched by the similarly structured Neapolitan Camorra and Sicilian Cosa Nostra mafia groups. The Calabrese crime syndicate has known ties to all sectors of the region’s economic pursuits, including produce production. It fills a vacuum left by the misuse of European Union funds delegated to regional governments, funding public works it then uses for it’s own purposes. The port of Gioia Tauro, for example, is well-known for ‘Ndrangheta cocaine trafficking from South America. It doesn’t come as a surprise that local municipalities have been under investigation for political mafia ties throughout the region. Left without an option for contracted work, seasonal migrant workers are some of ‘Ndrangheta’s most exploited commodities.
The camp’s lack of basic necessities render it only just livable. According to a 2012 report by Medici Senza Frontiere, Italy’s branch of Doctors Without Borders, 55% of those living in the tendopoli are without running water, 54% live in tents without lights, 60% lack access to hygienic services, and 91% are without external sources of heat. Access to electricity in the camp is unreliable at best and presents a serious safety hazard during the major floods that wash out the camp during the spring. Costal rainstorms are common in the months following work season, washing away what remains of the oranges that sustain the migrants. Tents are often wrapped doubly in extra plastic to avoid the complete saturation of personal belongings. A number of Rosarno’s migrants were moved to a nearby compound of state-donated storage containers, offering at least the comfort of walls and a roof, but the majority of Rosarno’s migrant population call the tendopoli home.
Survival is the primary motivator in tendopoli. It is a transient place, unsustainable without the migrants who must occupy it. How striking it is to consider the conditions these men faced in their own countries before coming to Calabria, where systemic discrimination and squalid living conditions make it difficult to understand why any man could seek it out. But the urgency to provide for family and willing sacrifice to travel across the world for it, that we can all understand.
Residual effects of 2010
A pot sizzling with twenty years of racial prejudice, oppressive working conditions, and routine intimidation by the mafia is bound to boil over with the right amount of pressure. The conditions for such an event were created when two young migrants were shot in identical drive-by attacks by local Italians in two separate incidents on Jan. 7, 2010. Although not the first incident of violence perpetrated by Italians towards the area’s seasonal West African workers, the events sparked a show of resistance in protest by almost 2000 migrants over the following days. While some hearkened back to the peaceful protests following the 2008 shootings of two young Ivorian men, the 2010 riots instead became nationally indicative of how disastrously inadequate living and working conditions suffered by Italy’s migrant workers.
A flourish of impromptu Italian vigilante patrols responded to the protests by targeting anyone with dark skin, escalating the violence by sending 21 migrants to local Calabrese hospitals according to a report by then-Minister of the Interior Roberto Maroni. The gang-style attacks prompted the local headline, “Black men hunted with shotguns, like animals.” The absence of judicial charges brought against Italians forming these informal “patrols” was due in part to a year-old amendment in the Consolidated Immigration Act regulating the movements of foreign nationals, authorizing, “the use (but not to employ) of personnel to control activities...in public spaces. The service does not involve the attribution of any qualification.” While use of the amendment to exonerate the Italians was laughable, as the law explicitly stipulated against the use of weapons, the official city council was occupied by a delegation of local unelected Italians at the time of the incident, who among other measures were calling for the deportation of all Africans.
In the days following the protests, Rosarno and its surrounding municipalities became devoid of Africans as more than 700 vacated on buses to the North and another ~200 left of their own accord. Citizens of Rosarno were reported as having cheered while the buses filled with Africans departed for outposts in Bari and Crotone. Others saw the evacuation as akin to an ethnic cleansing, as no Italian complicit in the riots was ever forced from the Rosarno area. Since 2010, the number of migrant workers reported in the areas in and around Rosarno has decreased significantly, due in part to the memory of the Italian response to the riots.
Today, tensions between the African migrants and Italians are omnipotent - needing only a spark to ignite. The shooting of one tendopoli resident this past June at the hands of a carabiniere (state police) officer in response to an attempted stabbing did not prompt large-scale protest as similar shootings have in the past. The young man’s death, however, stands as a stark reminder of the failure in resource delivery offered to the camp’s population. He may have lived if a hospital been in the settlement’s immediate vicinity; he may never had attacked an officer if he been afforded a roof and running water. And perhaps the migrants would have protested his death, had not the memory of the 2010 riots remained as an informal deterrent to organized action within the migrant community. Rosarno is different after the riots, both for Italians and Africans. The effects of the riots are felt in the silence of the San Ferdinando streets when two Africans bike to the village grocery store. It is felt in the distrust that residents of the tendopoli reserve for strangers. And it is reflected by the local government, which continues to delay measures to secure permanent housing for those living in what was intended to be a temporary settlement.
“Eh, come facciamo? Piano piano, andiamo avanti, How are we doing? Step by step, let’s go onward,” he says with a wide smile. Ibra’s eternally sunny demeanor is welcome after the rain has soaked the camp following a three-day storm. Today, Ibra is running the small market offering residents basic necessities for low prices. The variety of goods offered is a draw between West African and Italian products, re-stocked as residents of the tendopoli bike to the grocery stores in nearby Rosarno or San Ferdinando.
Ibra, a six-month resident of this tendopoli, is often sought out for advice by fellow migrant workers. Fluent in Italian (and French, Moré, Djula, and several other Bantu languages) and well-connected to Italians in neighboring towns, Ibra helps men living in the camp obtain legal working papers and permessi di soggiorni, “permits to stay” in the country for an allotted period of working months. The majority of migrants living in the tendopoli are certified to work with official documents, in contrast the well-circulated myth that Italy’s African migrant workforce is largely undocumented. Ibra also coordinates with the local branch of Caritas, a worldwide Catholic charity aimed at mitigating poverty, to serve food to the residents of the tendopoli twice a week.
Burkinabé in background, Ibra remembers his homeland fondly.
“É bellisima, it’s beautiful,“ he recalled.
Born in 1976, Ibra was raised as Thomas Sankara came to power. A revolutionary leader likened to Che Gueverra, he ruled the nation after a successful coup in 1983 until his assassination in 1987. Ibra described Sankara with fondness, calling him the older brother of all Burkinabé citizens. Sankara gave Burkina Faso its recognized name, meaning “ land of the upright man,” from its former colonial title “Upper Volta,” a change Ibra takes to heart.
“Upper Volta didn’t [linguistically] mean anything,” he said. “Burkina Faso means someone who loves his family, his country.”
Sankara’s leadership was controversial, launching the nation into a slew of reforms aimed at self-determination from the French state including large public health projects, renovation of infrastructure, education initiatives, and advancing women’s rights. Under his administration, Burkina Faso became the first African nation to recognize AIDS as a threat to public health. His methods, however, were often questioned by human rights groups, who routinely accused Sankara’s administration of torturing political opponents. Despite this, Ibra and many others living in poverty at the time of his presidency consider Sankara a man of the people.
“Sankara was like a big tree,” said Ibra. “The tree of Burkina Faso. Then the tree fell [Sankara’s assassination], and there is little to do after a tree falls.”
Ibra stayed in his home country in the years following Sankara’s assassination, for which he was only 11-years-old, until it was clear he could not make a living that could sustain his family. Like many West African economic migrants, Ibra chose Italy as a destination due to its need of seasonal labor, and has since worked in regions across the country. A number of those calling the tendopoli home have endured the perilous Libyan sea route in overcrowded rubber boats, conjuring images eponymous with the global refugee crisis.
Ibra does not fall into this category, having flown into the Milan-Malpensa airport in 2001 with only his passport and the clothes on his person. Congruent with the experiences of many African migrants looking for work in Italy, Ibra had trouble securing sustainable work in Northern cities and moved further South as job prospects slimmed to the agricultural sector. Ibra first came to the Rosarno tendopoli for the 2015 orange season, picking fruit without a labor contract for various produce companies until the spring. Since then, he has engaged in odd jobs off-season that provide him with enough money to eat.
Like all economic migrants, however, Ibra’s tenure in Rosarno depends on his capability to work. Without some kind of reliable income, Ibra will move on as he has in the past. Perhaps to Sicily, where he worked harvesting fruit before coming to Calabria. Perhaps Naples, where he has worked during other spring months picking tomatoes. Perhaps back north to Milan, where his journey in Italy began. As the changing seasons first bring oranges to Calabria and then take them away, so rotate the migrants relying on them for survival.
“Dobbiamo girare,” he says. “We have to roam.”
Eyes toward the future
Italy, like so much of Europe, is saturated with the same anti-immigrant rhetoric that has fueled the election of far-right leaders across a swath of nations. The future of Ibra and seasonal migrant workers like him will be determined by what steps these nations take in restricting their borders, and the official response to informally tolerated discrimination against migrants and refugees across Europe.
The future, however, need not be so bleak.
An international success story of tolerance and acceptance between migrants and Italians lies just over an hour drive away from Rosarno on the coast of the Ionian Sea. Riace, the small town making headlines around the world, is being examined as a sustainable model for refugee resettlement in similarly sized villages across the Italian south. Mayor Domenico Lucano is credited with the success, and says it was the refugees who saved the fading village that had seen a severe drop in residents in the years following World War II. The story of Riace’s population decline is one shared by communities throughout the region; the village was on the verge of extinction as locals migrated to the north and further out of Italy for gainful employment.
Mayor Lucano first opened the town’s empty homes to Kurdish refugees in 1998, pioneering a resettlement program that has filled the town’s many empty houses with families from 20 nations. The program also funds local artisan workshops where migrants are taught trades traditional to the region, thereby maintaining local customs. Lucano estimates around 6,000 refugees have come through Riace, some settling for life and others staying only a short while. Stores and bakeries once tightly shuttered have reopened under the eye of resettled residents, and a newly opened village school caters to the children of all backgrounds that have injected new life into the costal town.
Riace receives about $40 a day per refugee in government subsidies, and Lucano has been accused by critics for hosting refugees with this purpose in mind. 15 years of gradual population growth and sustained economic growth, however, argues a more genuine reason. Nobody could call Riace a flawless model, there have been missteps as the program struggles to meet the challenges presented by the global refugee crisis. The program should, however, be considered holistically with regard to the treatment asylum seekers and economic migrants receive throughout the region.
If the measure of a society is found in the treatment of its citizens, it must also be based in its treatment of immigrants. When we become desensitized to the plight of homelessness and hunger among migrant populations, we permit those conditions to exist. When discrimination is not only common but expected, the moral fibre of a society curdles. When oppression is ordinary and abuses become common against foreigners, governments lose the agency to call their nations free and just. Poverty has always existed and thus have the lower classes, yet the framework of scarcity is not dependent on skin color. Institutionalized racism and the scapegoating of foreigners is the base upon which every tendopoli is built, to which destitution is the result - not the cause. Places like Riace may inspire, but the only way the status quo will measurably change is through a major culture shift. It will be difficult, it will be the challenge of a lifetime, and it will be worth it.