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

CASTEL VOLTURNO, Italy (AP) – They are known as “the invisibles”: undocumented African migrants who, even before the coronavirus outbreak, plunged Italy into crisis, almost without being treated as day laborers, prostitutes, freelance hairdressers and seasonal farmers .

Locked up for two months in dilapidated apartments, in a city infiltrated by crowds north of Naples, her hand-to-mouth existence has become even more precarious without work, food or hope.

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Italy is preparing to reopen some businesses and industries on Monday, in a preliminary reduction in the shutdown of the virus. But there is no indication that Castel Volturno's "invisibles" will return to work anytime soon, and there is no evidence that government social media alleviates 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 was hiding in her overcrowded building. She ran out of milk for 6 months old and is receiving brochures from a friend.

A patchwork of volunteers, doctors, a priest, cultural mediator and local city officials are trying to ensure that the "invisible" are not completely forgotten, delivering groceries daily to their suffocated apartments and trying to provide medical assistance. But the need is outweighing the resources.

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"There is an emergency within the COVID emergency, which is a social emergency," said Sergio Serraiano, who runs a health clinic in the city. "We knew it was going to happen and we have been waiting for it from the beginning."

The virus hit the prosperous industrial north of Italy most heavily, where the first home case was recorded on February 21 and where the majority of those infected and 27,000 dead were reported. Most of the government's attention and response has focused on strengthening the health system there to withstand the onslaught of tens of thousands of patients.

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Castel Volturno is another world entirely, a 27-kilometer-long strip that runs along the sea north of Naples, controlled by the organized crime syndicate of Camorra. Here, there were only about a dozen cases of COVID, and none among 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 rates of cancer, attributed to illegal dumping and burning of toxic waste that polluted the air, the sea and underground wells.

Here, the crowd administers drugs and waste disposal, and officials warn that clans are prepared to exploit the economic misery caused by the closure of the virus.

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It is also here that “the invisibles” have settled down over the years, many after crossing Libya's Mediterranean in smugglers' boats, hoping for a better life. Nobody knows their numbers for sure, but estimates reach 600,000 nationwide. In Castel Volturno, a city with an official population of around 26,000, there are estimates of 10,000 to 20,000.

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Men do well in the day's work picking tomatoes, lemons or oranges, or building where they earn 25 euros ($ 28) a day. The woman sells their bodies, or, if they are lucky, works as a freelance hairdresser or sells trinkets and lighters on the street.

In normal times, the men meet at 4 am in the roundabouts that dot the main road of Via Domiziana, waiting for the trucks to place them and take them to the farms or construction sites. But since the blockade, even this illegal system known as “caporalato” has stopped.

Migrants, who already lived precariously without official residence or work permits, are now unable to pay 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 migrant from Ghana who lives with 46 Nigerian and Ghanaian men in a dark, rundown house where dirty dishes fill the kitchen sink. and old blankets serve as curtains on broken windows.

To bathe, wash and wash the toilet, he and his housemates walk 300 meters with buckets to a fountain and vice versa.

The level of despair is apparent everywhere: without electricity or refrigeration, food spoils quickly and is cooked immediately. On a recent day, cooked fish and goat heads were left out on the shelves. Outside, the chicken was being cooked on a makeshift stove made of old mattress springs.

A consortium of unions and non-profit organizations called for a general amnesty to legalize undocumented migrants. Government ministers promised to help even those in the black market economy survive the emergency. A proposed law would legalize migrant farm workers to harvest strawberries, peaches and melons, since legal seasonal workers in Italy were kept at home in Eastern Europe due to virus travel restrictions.

But no proposal has entered into law, and there is fierce opposition across the country and in tiny Castel Volturno to any measures to legalize the African workforce currently here.

"We are talking about 20,000 illegal immigrants out of a population of 26,000 – which makes it almost like a foreigner for an Italian," said Mayor Luigi Petrella of the right-wing anti-immigration party Brothers of Italy. "It seems absurd to propose something like that."

That said, the city is working to feed the masses, joining the local refugee center of the Fernandes Center to bring bags of food every day to the locked up and unemployed migrants.

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

"It was different when I was in Nairobi," he said, during a break from the shopping rounds. “There was poverty, but it was more human. There is something devilish about it here, something bad about how all these people are treated. "

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Nicole Winfield contributed from Rome.

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