Comment: The migrant crisis and the mafia trap

The view overlooking Rosarno and Gioia Tauro in Italy - two towns known to be 'Ndrangheta strongholds. Source: Connie Agius

The agricultural region of southern Italy looks like a postcard - and an opportunity for migrants travelling across Europe to work and earn some money. But there's a trap: the mafia, writes Connie Agius.

His body lay on the cold concrete floor. The house is an empty shell, abandoned for years, with no electricity and no running water. It is just bricks and mortar. The bare building is hidden from civilisation by lush orange groves, olive plantations and pristine vineyards. The man can no longer move and every shallow breath could be his last. The rats can smell death and they begin to feast on his body. He can do nothing but quietly groan. The abandoned house is now his coffin. How could a person meet such a horrible end? 

Thousands of migrants chase Italy’s agriculture seasons in the hope of making enough money to survive, and to send some extra cash to their families back home. Many of this year’s arrivals will fall into the same trap. It is tomatoes in the scorching summer, apples in autumn and citrus fruits in the wet winter. This man followed the same route. He travelled to Rosarno in Calabria, a small town that sits in the bosom of a valley in Italy’s 'toe'. It is famous for being a carpet of citrus trees with plump oranges from November to February. But the town is known for another reason – the mafia.

The mafia control almost everything in the town, from restaurants to local businesses, and illegal activities

The ‘Ndrangheta is the mafia that controls the Calabria territory. It is one of the most powerful criminal organisations in the world. Rosarno is ruled by some of the most dangerous familiesand has one of the highest crime rates in Italy. The mafia control almost everything in the town, from restaurants to local businesses, and illegal activities such as drug trafficking. Their power is so absolute that the council has been dissolved a couple of times on orders of the country’s central government because of mafia infiltration. 

The ‘Ndrangheta’s control extends to the city’s orange groves, which means appalling treatment at the hands of gangmasters and poor living conditions for those working in the fields. They are paid as little as €15 for a 12 to 18 hour day of hard and robotic labour. One visit revealed more than 100 migrants living in squalor on a property without electricity, water, and using holes in the ground as toilets. They crowd together in whatever shelter they can find or create. Some foreigners are angry and hate the conditions, others are just grateful to be in Europe. Some migrants live in makeshift camps purposely built for the traveling workers. The remaining people try to build a ‘home’ in abandoned buildings and houses, which is where this dying man was found.

Labour exploitation is just one way the Italian mafias and organised criminal networks can feed off the migration crisis

A retired charity worker nicknamed Ciccio made the gruesome discovery. The migrants call him Papa Africa. He spends his days driving through mafia-controlled territory to care for the migrants working the fields. He will see what they need one day, and deliver it the next - blankets, pillows, warm clothes, water or food. He gives them something more than physical possessions – a shoulder to lean on, and a hug or a smile, that makes them feel human, again. As we drive through the orange groves, Ciccio tells me about the day he came across an abandoned house on one of his last charity runs for the season. It appeared empty, but he thought it was best to check. He walked through the doorless frame to find the rodents ravaging the migrant’s body. He squints and shakes his head as he describes the scene. He slowly picked up the man’s shell of a body and carried him to the car. He had fallen ill with cancer at the end of the orange season after his roommates moved onto the next agriculture season. He was unable to reach the outside world from his isolated shelter when he could no longer move. Ciccio used some of his retirement savings to pay for his burial. 

Labour exploitation is just one way the Italian mafias and organised criminal networks can feed off the migration crisis. An anti-mafia prosecutor in Calabria's office, Federico Cafiero De Raho, has expressed concern that the `Ndrangheta could use migrants to open up new weapon and drug trafficking routes. The organisation is known to have direct contact with drug cartels in South America, and is on the lookout for new ways and routes to expand their empire.

They have jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire  

But travel along Italy’s toe, across the Strait of Messina and you arrive on the island of Sicily. This territory is controlled by another Italian mafia organisation called Cosa Nostra. They also use the rich agriculture land to exploit the new arrivals, but the island is littered with something else – migrant centres. These facilities receive millions of state and European Union funds. Anti-mafia prosecutors in Sicily believe mafia families are trying to infiltrate the immigration sector to take advantage of the public contracts that should be used to house, feed and provide language lessons to migrants and refugees. Europe’s biggest migrant centre, Cara di Mineo, on Sicily’s east coast in Catania province, has been under a spotlight since December 2014. That centre has been implicated in a different case known as Mafia Capitale, where an organised criminal network used mafia tactics to influence construction and reception centre contracts, and delivered sub-standard services. 

Traditional Italian mafia organisations and organised criminal networks are also feeding off the migration crisis through prostitution rings and drug trafficking in the country’s major cities. Many migrants and refugees find that after paying thousands of dollars to flee war-ravaged and authoritarian regimes to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, they have jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Connie Agius is an Australian journalist currently working in Italy.

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