Can Europe Make It?

Moussa's story: migrant workers in Italy under lockdown

Unlike Portugal, there is no indication from the Italian authorities that ensuring access to basic care and support for migrant workers has crossed their minds.

Hsiao-Hung Pai
13 April 2020, 7.25pm
Asparagus season.
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During his time waiting for work in the spring, before the asparagus harvest started, 21-year-old Moussa’s daily routine was to come by bus to the city of Foggia. He would put on a scarf and a woolly hat to keep warm, and off he went. He needed to be away from the Borgo Mezzanone area where he lived with fellow migrant workers, to release the stress of each day – the stress caused by the permanent lack of basic facilities in the overcrowded barn and the constant need to cope. He told his friends that living this way was giving him headaches. He needed the space, even just a bus ride away, in Foggia. Moussa was always one of the first to get on the bus to town.

But the city wasn’t stress-free. Moussa, originally from Mali, had to be cautious where he spent his time. Across town, he was familiar with the stares from locals. He was all too aware of his social position and where Italian society placed him. In Foggia, African workers often experienced racism in public spaces. In sandwich bars and cafés, they would often be given unwelcoming glances or be glared at by staff and customers who were used to the image of Africans working in the fields but not Africans sitting in a café.

Although Moussa tried to appear Zen-like with the occasional hostility towards him, he made sure he avoided going to places that he knew were “only for the locals”. Like fellow workers from Senegal, Gambia, Nigeria and other African countries, he chose to come to the “African quarter”, the street corners of Via Podgora where several cheap Asian and Turkish eateries, kebab shops and convenience stores were. This is the corner where he and his friends hung out when waiting for work, or as he described, passa il tempo.

This quarter is where many migrant workers pass through and gather in town. When they first arrive in Foggia, this is one of the first places they visit – to get food and get themselves sorted out before travelling by bus out to the sprawling encampments in the countryside.

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Since March, in the middle of the Covid-19 outbreak, the “African quarter” has been quiet. Even the labour recruiters and middlemen who usually hang around here are absent. And the Western Union office that Moussa and his friends all frequented in order to send cash home, has no queues. Moussa and the others used to come here to use the free Wi-Fi and could stand around outside for the entire afternoon and enjoy the internet access that they didn’t have in the rural area where they lived. They would charge their mobile phones here, too, with the help of the staff whom they got to know well. They used to come here and talk with people they knew from the two largest encampments, Gran Ghetto and Borgo Mezzanone. These street corners were their information hub where they exchanged news about life and work. This was where Moussa felt the safest in the city.


But now, no one dare venture out in the middle of a lockdown. No one has been allowed outdoors since mid-March. There were more than 600 people infected with Covid-19 in the province of Foggia in early April. Moussa and his friends could no longer visit town and the “African quarter” to get their basic food shopping from the Pakistani store there. They had to use the tiny convenience shop near where they lived on the outskirts – where they were given a ticket each time and queued to go into the shop one by one. Like the rest of Italy, they were not permitted any outdoor activity except this brief food shopping.

The restriction of movement was tough for Moussa and his friends because it meant that they couldn’t go to work. Although the asparagus season was yet to start, there was always irregular farm work to do in March and early April. But not this year. It is true that many working-class Italians are in a work-less situation, too, while the difference is that migrant workers will never receive any state support and many have to rely on charity donations for food.

Meanwhile, Moussa and his friends are aware that fewer and fewer Africans are able to land in Italy since the Covid-19 outbreak. There were 241 landings in March 2020, according to the Interior Ministry – fewer than the 262 of March last year. Since the start of the outbreak, Africans rescued at sea had to go through a 2-week quarantine before landing. According to Borderline Sicilia, a Sicily-based activist monitoring group, the recent arrivals from the Ocean Viking in Pozzallo and from Sea Watch 3 in Messina have been treated poorly. The Borderline Sicilia report said: “The Interior Minister ordered the quarantine of the 276 migrants in the Pozzallo hotspot and also members of the Ocean Viking crew. Also, District President Musumeci requested that no one disembark from the ship – double standard for Sicilians and tourists arriving from the north by sea and air… At the same time, the mayor of Messina, Cateno de Luca, imposed a quarantine in the hotspot on the 194 migrants from the Sea Watch 3 rescue ship – not to protect them from the virus circulating through Italy, but for being considered possible carriers of the disease.”

Now on 7 April, with a newly-issued decree, the Italian government has declared its seaports “unsafe” due to the outbreak and will not authorise the landing of rescue ships until the end of the health emergency (which may be at the end of July although that could be extended). This announcement was made after Sea Eye’s rescue ship Alan Kurdi, the only one at work in the central Mediterranean, rescued 150 people who were left stranded at sea with no EU country wanting to let them dock.

Shanty town boulevard

In Foggia, Moussa continued to wait for work. This would normally be hard to imagine because the area of Borgo Mezzanone is one of the major agricultural regions in Italy. Each year, thousands of migrant workers come here to harvest asparagus in the spring and then tomatoes in the summer. Moussa would come here every spring, all the way from Turin, when he finished apple-picking work. He is a seasonal worker and has always tried to send money back home to support his three brothers ever since their parents passed away. During the off-peak season when there is no apple harvest around Turin, he would come to join his friends who were based in Borgo Mezzanone near Foggia city.

So that was how Moussa ended up in the makeshift encampment of Borgo Mezzanone, known as “Pista-Borgo Mezzanone”, one of the eight informal encampments in the province. He found shelter there almost each spring. At least 500 African agricultural workers lived there at any one time with treble that number during harvest. There were no basic facilities there, no health care provided by any organisation, and no waste collection by the local authorities, which led to the area being surrounded by rubbish. Moussa was sharing a tiny shack with four friends. In adversity, they shared everything. They would go to Foggia and get their food provisions from a Pakistani shop. Back in the camp, they would keep any meat in the old communal fridge, rescued from a dumpster and powered by a shared mobile generator.

Their makeshift shanty town was located right next to an asylum reception camp (a CARA, Hosting Centre for Asylum Seekers) that was set up in 2005 in a well-fenced ex-military compound making it look more like a prison than a reception centre. In fact, the shanty town itself was the product of evictions from this asylum camp that eventually became the country’s third largest.

Ever since 2011, when many asylum seekers were asked to leave the CARA camp as they received their documents, without resources and social networks, they became homeless overnight. The only housing choice they had was to build their shacks on the land next to the asylum camp.

When the asylum camp closed down in 2012, many decided to go north to Germany to start all over again. Others stayed and join their predecessors in building their shacks in the makeshift encampment next door. They collected building materials, such as corrugated metal sheeting and bricks, from dumpsters and disused factory sites around. Some of them had good building skills and they were able to construct strong dwellings using only materials that the Italians had discarded. With their labour, they built a shanty town of their own from the scrap and leftovers of the town.

Many houses and shacks, including cafés, a garage and repair shop, a bike shop, and later a mosque and a church were all built along the old runway like a grand wide shanty town boulevard. Further along this boulevard were a row of accommodation blocks converted from toilet facilities. There were also container dormitories left over from the former reception camp and now being used by people in the shanty town. They stood out because they were of the same battleship grey colour as the dormitories inside the reception camp next door. Along the runway, the shanty town stretched for a mile or so. The flat concrete runway made it easier to build the houses, but when it rained, the site flooded quickly.

Over time, the shanty town drew in more and more people, most of whom had no place to go after closure of their asylum camps in the Puglia region as well as Naples, Rome, Milan and elsewhere. Around half the shanty town’s residents had documents, the other half did not. Whatever their asylum and migratory status, they all needed work and there was plenty of work around here during harvest time.

As more people arrived, the shanty town community grew. Some people set up various stalls and provided basic services to fellow residents. There were stalls displaying shoes and clothes collected from bins in Foggia. A man from Ghana was selling shoes for a living here. He went to Foggia often, in order to collect just old shoes from the bins in the city. He would put them all in a bag and bring them back here, then, patiently, he sat cleaning and preparing them one by one. He then displayed them neatly in his stall. The stock took him several months to collect and prepare. A Nigerian man was running a bigger stall selling shoes, jeans and shirts, round the corner, and well-presented as they were, all his stock was from the city’s bins, too. One of the football shirts on his display was an England shirt with “Shearer 9” on the back, which looked like it was from the 1990s – as everyone said, you could occasionally find some good stuff in the bins.

Mutual help

Another impressive innovation was a makeshift laundry a few doors from the shoe stalls. It consisted of a couple of old washing machines collected from a tip sitting whirring on wooden pallets. They had been repaired and were being reused here. There was a mutual-help principle that kept the community going: you offered your skills and helped others while helping yourself. Another Ghanian man, in his fifties, was a tailor back home and often offered to help fellow workers with mending their clothes. In return, he was paid 50 cents or so for each repair. It paid for his food.

In 2013, the asylum camp next door re-opened, under the management of the cooperative Sisifo, and had a capacity for 636 people. Despite it being notorious for its appalling management of the reception camp in Lampedusa, Sisifo managed to keep the contract for the CARA in Borgo Mezzanone by offering the cheapest bid. Under the management of the cooperative, overcrowding had always been a major issue.

Although the asylum camp was well gated and fenced, there was a small entrance at the rear which allowed people from the makeshift shanty town to enter. Many people, like Moussa, had friends inside. They would walk into the reception camp to use a shower – as there was only a water tap in their shanty town – and also recharge their mobile phones. The shanty town’s proximity to the CARA had meant that certain basic facilities could be provided from inside the CARA to the encampment outside – electricity, hot water, toilets, and Wi-Fi. It worked the other way too: asylum seekers from the CARA could access things they were not provided in the shelter, such as prayer rooms and makeshift stores selling daily necessities, clothes, etc. People living in the CARA and the shanty town outside had been able to make these necessary exchanges and find ways to survive their conditions by supporting one another.


During the Covid-19 outbreak, however, facilities in both the shanty town and inside the CARA have been stretched to the limit. More workers came to seek accommodation in the shanty town, which meant a growing number of people using the facilities inside the CARA. The lack of a sufficient water supply in the shanty town couldn’t be properly made up for by access to the CARA. Many workers have to rely on charity donations when they are available, for drinking water, let alone food, which they couldn’t afford to buy as they couldn’t go out to work.

The poor safety inside the shanty town led to one fire after another – In April 2019, a 26-year-old Gambian man was killed in his sleep in a late night fire in his shack. This young man had been rejected in his asylum claim a few months earlier and had to leave the asylum camp next door. Moussa often went on the same bus with him into town. He could do nothing but pray for the man’s family.

On 4 February 2020, a 31-year-old woman from Nigeria was severely burned in a fire caused by gas explosion and died in the hospital four days later. For the society out there, this was “just another death by fire” that happened to people living in the ghettoes.

The local authorities had always intended to dismantle the shanty town, without providing the workers with suitable alternative housing. People stayed here because they had no choice. After the fire in April 2019, demolition began that summer. 74 shacks were taken apart and 130 people evicted. Some workers felt desperate enough to travel to Germany or France, to seek asylum there. Others like Moussa were more cautious about making such a move without resources. He and his friends managed to find temporary lodging with a friend who was living in an abandoned barn in a village an hour away from Foggia city. Nothing much was there, except a corner shop.

Those who remained in what was left of the shanty town of Borgo Mezzanone carried on working in the fields in the area. Migrant workers continued to arrive and build shacks or tents to sleep in, from mid-February, in preparation for the harvest this year. They were, of course, unaware that Covid-19 cases had started to appear in late February in northern Italy. By the time the disease spread in March, the number of workers has already reached over 1,300 in the shanty town.

During the lockdown, there was increased police control in the area around the shanty town. A mobile carabinieri station was set up and working in the village for several days.

The cross-over between the asylum CARA camp and the shanty town further stretched the capacity of the former. During the Covid-19 crisis, the asylum camp became an even more unhealthy and unsanitary place for the occupants. The risks of infection alarmed the authorities, which finally led to the facility – 18 housing units and 13 bathrooms – being shut down in March. Around 300 people have now been left to find their own housing.

Then, on the night of 28 March, another fire broke out in the shanty town next door, when more than thirty shacks were destroyed. Several people suffered minor injuries. Further demolition was inevitable, which came at the end of the month. The workers who lost their sleeping places here were then added to the homeless and destitute throughout the countryside, in the middle of the disease outbreak.

The barn and the middlemen

For Moussa, the waiting time is unbearable during the lockdown. He knows he has to stay put. The police are everywhere and he doesn’t want to go against the rules. Besides, without documents, he fears he will not be able to access healthcare if he falls ill with Covid-19. The prospect of becoming ill on your own is the fear that keeps many people indoors. In this national health emergency, it is again those without formal immigration status who are always excluded – from medical care to any support measures. Unlike Portugal, there has been no indication from the Italian authorities that the regularisation of migrant workers – to ensure access to basic care and support – is something being considered at all.

At the same time, Moussa’s fear of becoming ill alone will always be overcome by the fear of not being able to work and earn for his family. He must send cash home to put food on their table. He would, without hesitation, choose to go to work if work started right now. Many of his friends feel the same, given the immense pressure to support their families.

Whilst Italians self-isolate at home, African workers like Moussa have nowhere to call home except a temporary, overcrowded barn now occupied by dozens of friends and co-workers – they certainly do not have a balcony to sing on. When society continues to marginalise and exclude them, these workers still wait to pick the crops that need to be picked – and for little reward. When the asparagus harvest starts in mid-April, Moussa earns €3- €3.50 per hour, with the rate fluctuating slightly among farmers. This is the same agricultural pay level that has remained for him and his fellow African workers over the years. Despite there being a shortage of migrant labour from Eastern Europe due to the Covid-19 outbreak, African workers’ are not finding themselves in a better bargaining position with their employers and their wages have never changed.

What stays fixed is the charge of €5 for transport from the gangmasters who organise ten workers in a team. Moussa has a local Italian gangmaster who often came to pick workers up and deducted the same transport money from workers no matter the distance travelled. The area is thick with these middlemen who organise and control the workforce. Moussa remembers them driving round the shanty town in their big cars, drawing attention to themselves. His middleman would pay him every five to ten days, depending on what he wished to do. By the end of May, the asparagus harvest will come to an end and many workers would stay on to pick tomatoes.

“Life goes on,” as Moussa would say, even during the pandemic. So does their exploitation and exclusion.

Asparagus picking in Foggia.
Asparagus picking in Foggia.
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