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December 08, 2011

‘Arab Spring’ Migrants Trapped by Italy’s Economic Crisis

by Henry Ridgwell

The flow of migrants from Libya to Europe has resumed following the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi in October. Since the uprisings in Libya and Tunisia earlier this year, tens of thousands of migrants have departed across the Mediterranean for a new life. The reality of trying to build a new life in Europe is often a long way from the hopes and dreams of the migrants. And, Italy's economic crisis is also hitting the newcomers hard.

From afar, the ramshackle huts crammed on the edge of the vast green fields resemble a refugee camp. The residents call it ‘the Ghetto,’ a squalid shanty town on the outskirts of Foggia in southern Italy which is home to over 600 immigrants.

The region is known as the ‘Red Gold Triangle,’ producing 35 percent of Italy’s tomatoes, most picked and processed by armies of migrant workers every fall.

"They sleep on the ground on mattresses they have picked up on the streets, most of them are rotten and infested with insects," said Dr. Alvise Benelli of Doctors Without Borders, who helps care for the workers.

This year, due to Italy’s economic crisis, factories in Italy’s rich north laid off employees - forcing an extra 2,000 migrants to head south looking for work.

A clampdown on illegal migrants means fewer farmers are willing to hire them.

The few jobs available pay around $45 for toiling in the fields, dawn till dusk.

"We just didn't know Italy was like this, we always thought it was a country where we would find jobs and do everything like eating and a lot of nice things,” said Andrea, who came to Italy several years ago from Burkina Faso. “Now we have seen it is not like that. But I can't go back."

As the uprisings in Tunisia and Libya ignited earlier this year, tens of thousands of migrants from across Africa and the Middle East began to leave the northern shores headed for Europe.

Hundreds have drowned on the journey.

Most who survive arrive on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa before being taken to the Italian mainland. A few legitimately claim asylum. Most stay illegally.

A group of 400 migrants trying to leave Tripoli last week were stopped by Libyan patrol boats.

“It appears that now after the end of the Libya fighting and crisis, the migration has resumed across the Mediterranean," said Mans Nyberg, spokesman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. "So again we see small rickety boats approaching Italy, approaching Malta from Libya. This is happening during the months of winter which of course are very dangerous in the Mediterranean with storms.”

Italy has launched an amnesty for some immigrants employed as cleaners or carers for the elderly. But not for illegal immigrants like the residents of the ‘Ghetto’.

With no official papers and barely any income, they are trapped - far from home and a long way from the hopes and dreams that set them on their way to Europe.