The tent city of Campobello di Mazzara

In the heart of Campobello di Mazzara, where olives have been cultivated for more than thirty years, no one has managed to find an alternative to the shameful and uncivilised practices adopted for the harvest. Yet again we are bound to write about the exploitation of migrants in the countryside.

As usual, we returned to the tent city to understand in greater depth the dynamics which lie behind the exploitation of those exploited in Campobello.

We were welcomed by volunteers at the tent city (people who have given over their own lives to help people in daily difficulty and hardship), ‘the angels’, who live through the reality of Fontana, the ex-olive processing complex confiscated from the Mafia, the grounds of which are now host to more than 400 tents and over 700 migrants.

First of all, we found out that this situation, as is always the case in the world of immigration, is not entirely new but has its roots in history. The volunteers explained to us how already in 2003 the first camps appeared of migrants who came to earn a living and feed their families.

In the last twenty years the emigration of young men from Campobello has resulted in a significant decrease in field labour, especially during the olive harvest. Consequentially the need arose to find young men available to work in the fields between the end of September and the beginning of December: what better solution could there be that the exploitation of young men without leave to remain, reliant on anyone who has a penny to their name? Thus the first spontaneous camps were born, as the offer of work via conditions of slavery did not correspond to dignified employment (bed and board, etc).

Over the passing years, these camps were established in the farmland of Erbe Bianche, where tents continue to be planted, as well as on dilapidated tenements, in which abandoned material (including asbestos) is used for cooking and heating. Hundreds of migrants set up in the fields of Campobello, without water, sanitary infrastructure or electric light, all of whom know that the are ‘nothing’ to the landowners.

‘Exploitation’ is the word which the volunteers use the most, with a mix of sentiments ranging from anger to compassion, eventually pronounced with tears in their eyes as they described to us the efforts and will to change the status quo.

The change, as so often happens, did not come from a particular politics of institution, but from the street, from the grass roots, and from the good will of a few citizens, who began to turn their attention to the inhuman tent city of the Erbe Bianche, and to push the authorities to install water taps, to clear up the living areas, and to give more dignity, to put it euphemistically, to the situation than is usual.

In 2014 the volunteers managed to involve some other organisations and presented a project to the institutions. Thus the tent city of Erbe Bianche was cleared out, and possibility given to the ‘slaves’ of erecting their tents within the grounds of the former olive processing plant: toilets, showers and some electric lights were installed, and the situation, if still totally lacking human respect, has at least become livable for those who, over the years, have been forced to submit themselves to whatever allows them to earn a crust of bread. The volunteers’ most important achievement is without doubt the awareness raising against exploitation: years of flyers and posters, of handbooks on workers’ rights and the consciousness of bargaining power.

Today the situation, at least on the contractual level, has completely changed from what it was ten years ago. In the tent city there are more than 700 migrants, almost all of whom have leave to remain, and a large number have contracted jobs. A small victory, a citizens’ achievement which should become the practice throughout the Sicilian countryside, but not every place has people like Angelo, Ismail or Patrizia who spend their lives restoring to people that which the system of exploitation takes from workers.

The road ahead is still very long, as the volunteers are well aware. The general situation has not changed because underneath it all there is a system of exploitation with deep roots. Everyone is aware of the necessity of labour power which, under these conditions of exploitation, is not provided by the local youth. Everyone is aware that the olive harvest sustains a large part of the surrounding area, and that the only ones read to work in these conditions are migrants. The police know this, the institutions know this, the politicians know this and the owners of the olive groves know this.

The politicians are thus careful not upset the balance, so that the police pass by regularly in front of the tent city to check that no one from outside bothers the migrants, and if they come across episodes of racism and violent acts – such as the throwing of a brick or acid at the tents – everyone works to try and keep the peace. Notwithstanding this, there is a section of the population with no direct interest in the harvest who have not become accustomed to the migrants’ present, and when workers have requested to rent out houses nearby they have been responded to with rejections full of clichés (dirty, rapists and violent).

Only those from North Africa who have settled for years are given the possibility of better wages and conditions (in general they are paid fairly and on time), which encourages a war among the poor between the North and Central Africans (Senegalese, Sudanese, Gambian), in which one accuses the other of lowering the prices or enjoying privileges. Indeed, while there has been the success of work contracts (which a good deal of the migrants in the tent city have), the payment of wages is still not punctual and above all is not that agreed upon. This too is a tacit agreement between landowners and the state: the contracts result from the high fines which were levied following checks (last year more than €100k, this year €35k), but for the migrants it is almost impossible to get what’s agreed on paper.

The migrants earn between €40-50 a day in the harvest, for 10-11 hours work (from 6am to 4pm or 5pm), while others receive €3 per crate. But there are still more impoverished situations, as for the Gambians or Nigerians who have just arrived (probably without residency permits), who live a little away from the tent city in abandoned lots deprived of sanitary infrastructure, water or light, who are paid only €2 per crate.

We live in a situation in which one thinks only how to overpower the weakest, to get the most with the least effort, which becomes a logic of maintaining at all cost an uncivilised and compromised situation which benefits the usual powers – and for so little. The tent city of Campobello, in 2015, is still without a health centre (the volunteers tell us that they accompany the migrants to A&E): the Red Cross doctors make a visit twice a week, as if people are neither sick nor in need of assistance. Beyond living in difficult conditions, with ice cold showers and hard work of 12 hour days, there are naturally psychological problems which contribute significantly to lower immune systems, as well as daily respiratory and muscular problems.

Dignity therefore helps to overcome the difficulties and incivility of the choices of politicians and absence of institutions. The lessons which the camp’s migrants communicate are of a much higher level than the little given by political choices: people arrive mainly from north Italy, to contribute to supporting their own families, young men who are exploited so that they can pay their university fees (and not be a burden to their families). We meet a very young man who is here to earn his fees for the first year of university. He tells us that he did not expect to find such bad conditions, so much difficulty and so much lack of care from institutions.

The volunteers tell us about the collectivity and sharing among the camp’s migrants, among the Senegalese (who make up around 70%), the Sudanese and the North Africans (who are more this year). Within the grounds of the former olive processing plant there are ethnic restaurants (three Sudanese, one Senegalese and one Tunisian), but whoever does not work, or does not have money does not go hungry, including those living in the nearby abandoned lots. The workers have also obtained a prayer space, and on Sundays instead of resting, the volunteers and temporary residents do the cleaning together.

The life of the camp is certainly not easy, but solidarity eases the suffering; for this we would like to amplify the call from Patrizia, Ismail and Angelo to find mattresses, blankets, clothes and shoes, as you cannot work with the same clothes, with the same worn out shoes, after having slept in the cold on a wooden palette.

Alberto Biondo

Borderline Sicilia

Translation: Richard Braud