Saturday, 3 May 2014

The Mafia Connection

I said yesterday that today would probably give me lots to write about. In fact, I want to say so much that I am not sure where to start. I had three appointments today – one with the Italian Refugee Council, one with the Centro Astalli of the Jesuits, and a phone interview with a representative of the Greek asylum service. All three were very successful from the point of view of Harald the PhD student, and very troubling from the point of view of Harald the human being. Let me tell you what happened.

This morning I drove back into Catania at 9am, having no trouble at all with finding the IRC’s offices. In fact they share offices with the intercultural centre of the city of Catania, and I certainly felt like the attraction of the day when I entered the building. I don’t know why, but everyone stared at me and two girls were giggling in the corner when I sat down to wait for my appointment. The interview was very useful. I will not summarise every single detail, but essentially the situation is as follows: the agriculture of Southern Italy is entirely dependent on migrant workers. Both my interview partners confirmed that agriculture in Sicily would be “dead” without the cheap labour that immigrants provide. Agriculture in turn is managed by the mafia. It is therefore in the interests of the mafia to get immigrants to come to Sicily. One way this is apparently done is vividly demonstrated by an incident that occurred two years ago at the Italian maritime border. When a migrant boat from Egypt (!!) arrived at that border, the people on it were transferred into a different boat – the latter process was organised by people linked to the mafia. One of my interview partners said that he would not be surprised if the mafia manages the smuggling operations on the other side of the Mediterranean. But this is not were business ends.

Seemingly idyllic Sicilian scenery
About 50 kilometres from Catania there is a small town called Mineo. Although the town is in the middle of nowhere and hardly worth mentioning, it had gained a reputation among the Sicilians since it housed an American army base of about 400 soldiers. The US army had built a whole village for itself, including an entire infrastructure, villas and lots of pretty houses. A couple of years ago, the Americans abandoned the base and left behind a ghost town. The owner of the land the base was built on, an extremely rich man named Pizzarotti, was now in trouble. For years the Americans had paid insane amounts of rent, and now he was left with a worthless piece of land nobody would ever be interested in renting. That’s when he had the idea of converting the place into a camp for immigrants. Mineo now houses 4,500 people. As could be expected, Pizzarotti is notorious for being a Mafiosi himself. Every year the Italian government pays him hundreds of thousands of euros in rent for his property. Most shockingly of all, the Italian government pays with money from the European refugee fund – €37 per day per person. Spend ten seconds calculating in your head and you will begin to see what dimensions we are talking about. Initially the people who lived around Mineo were very upset about the relocation of the refugee camp to their doorstep. Now, they have begun to base their livelihoods on it. Hundreds of people are either employed in the camp itself, or they live off it indirectly by selling food to the residents. Officially the place is called Residenze dei Aranci – Residence of Oranges.

After this meeting I went to the Centro Astalli. It is an amazing institution that provides help for immigrants of all kinds. Many immigrants avoid submitting their fingerprints to the Eurodac-database, because it will ruin their chances of applying for asylum in another EU member state according to the Dublin-Regulation (in most cases anyway). However, this also means not having access to many basic services such as receiving medication. In Sicily, everyone has to right to essential care at public hospitals, but medication costs money. That’s why the Centro Astalli provides all kinds of meds for free, including anti-retrovirals antibiotics. Assistance is also provided for people suffering from alcoholism, which is increasingly wide-spread because people are sleeping outdoors in the cold. Although the centre is run by Jesuits and there were crosses on the walls, I also saw posters with the Islamic prayer times on the walls.

One of the most shocking things the lady who showed me around told me also concerns Mineo. Some criminals have made it a business to drive the residents to Catania and back, expecting money in return. Money is obviously something immigrants lack, which is why the drivers often ask for alternative means of payment. There have been numerous incidents involving prostitution. Furthermore, the drivers will ask the Mineo residents to smuggle drugs back into the camp. This is another way that immigration has benefitted the Sicilian mafia.

After I left, I walked for a bit around town. At the train station there were immigrants sitting on every single bench, many of them no older than 15. At the IRC I was told that 300 unaccompanied minors had recently escaped from a nearby ‘reception’ centre. Of course, 300 people do not just escape – it is obvious that the authorities who were theoretically responsible for protecting them let them leave, knowing very well that this would result in their homelessness.

The amount of human suffering here is difficult to grasp. I remember being in the European Commission a year ago, being told by someone working in the asylum unit that the Italians exaggerate about their problems with immigration. She pointed to the statistics, which show that the number of asylum applications on Italy is totally normal for a country of that size. It is obvious that the people in the Commission have no idea what they are talking about. Spend fifteen minutes in the city centre of Catania or Palermo and you will know that this problem is real.


I’ll stop for today. The phone interview I had with the Greek asylum service was so insightful that it merits a post of its own, which I will write later.

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