Sicily’s bountiful olive harvest – the fruit of migrant exploitation in Italy

The town of Campobello di Mazara on the Italian island of Sicily overlooks rows of olive groves that cover green fields – farm trucks speed past with crates full of plump green olives.

But just a few steps away from this idyllic landscape is a darker place—a seedy makeshift camp that resembles a refugee camp.

Campobello di Mazara’s olive groves produce the Nocellara del Belice variety, popular in high-end European delis

Dubbed “The Ghetto”, it houses hundreds of African migrant workers, mostly from Gambia, Senegal and Tunisia.

Such “slums”, mainly inhabited by African agricultural workers, also exist in other regions of Italy, such as Puglia in the south. The United Nations estimates that between 450,000 and 500,000 irregular migrants work in the country’s agricultural sector – about half of the entire workforce.

“Campobello” means beautiful countryside in Italian, but looking at the camp, there are only dingy one-room shacks made of abandoned wooden doors, plastic and metal like old olive jars.

Residents were skeptical of outsiders, and few were willing to talk to us when we visited.

A Senegalese hand-washed meat in a large pot of dirty water while preparing lunch, another man slaughtered a sheep and a third fed the goat’s milk from a plastic water bottle.

Most residents of the ghetto are Muslim and their lambs are slaughtered for halal meat

At the back of the camp is a large clearing filled with rubbish and a makeshift shower that can be rented for $1 (£0.85) and buckets of water can be bought for $1.

The building was built by Boja, a Gambian immigrant who gave only his name and moved here in 2017. He originally came to work at the Olive Garden, but has since progressed from carpentry to camp builder.

The barracks he built are rented out to workers for $100 a month.

But the living conditions of the residents in the barracks are very poor: there is no running water, no sewage system, and no electricity. Boja said fires were built for cooking and to keep out the cold.

heat wave work

As many as 1,000 more undocumented immigrants still flock to the informal camp from September to November each year to work for black-market gang leaders to harvest olives.

Farmers here grow Nocellara del Belice olives, considered some of the best table olives in the world. They have to hire a lot of people to pick them in order to take them to expensive delis and supermarkets all over the world.

Boja has been living in the Campobello di Mazara ghetto for four years and became the builder of the camp

The gang system known as “caporalato” means that immigrants don’t work directly for farmers — their illegal status means they’re cheap for companies that pay as little as $2 an hour.

Boja said the ghetto can be a dangerous place – drug trafficking and sex workers are well documented – and even the police are afraid to enter the camp, which was partly burned last year, killing a young immigrant named Omar Baldeh and left hundreds of others homeless.

But the nearby town of Campobello di Mazara is empty, with its streets lined with wooden houses. Sicily has long been a place of emigration – its people leaving northern Italy and other parts of Europe in search of job opportunities.

At night, the city comes alive with a few takeaway pizzerias and cafes where Tunisian and Senegalese immigrants sit outside, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee.

Campobello di Mazara is a spooky town full of empty wooden houses

Boja said people struggled to survive in the ghetto, and he found it too difficult to talk about fire damage.

Last month, to mark the first anniversary of the fires, African migrants joined Italian activists through Campobello di Mazzara to demand better conditions for camp residents.

One of the protesters was Issa, a Gambian immigrant, who also declined to give his full name. He lives in Puglia, where he spent two years in the large Foggia ghetto, home to more than 1,500 immigrants.

He also complained about the way gang bosses treated African migrants – who were forced to work long hours in the heat.

In June 2021, 27-year-old Malian farm worker Camara Fantamadi died after picking tomatoes under the scorching sun in Puglia.

“No matter how hot the weather is, if you travel to Puglia, you will see Africans working on farms,” ​​Issa said.

Even on the hottest days, when the temperature easily reaches 40 degrees Celsius and the migrants would rather not go to the fields, the gangsters don’t give in, shouting, “Isa, where are you and why don’t you come to work?”

“No matter how hot it is, you have to get up and go to work,” he added.

It reflects how African migrants are bearing the brunt of the escalating climate crisis that Italy is experiencing. Sicily, the epicentre of a heatwave in Europe, recorded 48°C in 2021, the highest temperature ever recorded on the continent.

Mustapha Jarjou, a 24-year-old spokesman for the Gambian Community Association in Palermo, Sicily’s capital, said it was ironic that many who crossed the dangerous Mediterranean to Europe did so to escape the lack of opportunity caused by climate change in Africa.

They cannot survive without us”

Before the pandemic, a UN expert spoke about the exploitation of farm workers by “Italy’s complex food system” and condemned how undocumented migrants were “in trouble”,

Farmers can be prosecuted for using gang leaders

Italian authorities say they have tried to contain the gangsters in recent years.

The system was outlawed in 2011 and became a crime in 2016 for farmers who could rely on gangsters, although the law does not appear to apply to undocumented immigrants.

During the pandemic, the government issued work permits to thousands of irregular migrants to help farmers deal with labor shortages.

But with a new far-right government taking office last month, there are concerns that further amnesties for undocumented immigrants are not being considered.

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