Italy, Trapped in Apulia

Trapped in Apulia, Europe’s Deepening Refugee Crisis

By Maximilian Popp For Der Spiegel

A young Liberian refugee arrives in Italy, where he is left to fend for himself and winds up homeless in a filthy slum. When he flees to Germany, the government there invokes EU asylum law and sends him back. It is a cycle of degradation faced by thousands of African refugees living in Europe today.

The first time around, he ended up on the street in Hamburg, and the second time he was sent to prison. Now Sekou Kone lives in a hut made of trash and is trying to figure out how to make it to Germany a third time.

Flies circle around the bowl of rice in his hand. The stench of urine and rotten fish drifts in through the doorway. Empty cans, tires and debris litter the ground outside, where children walk along trails in the muck. The inhabitants of this settlement in the fields of Apulia, a four-hour drive southeast of Rome, call it “The Ghetto.” They also call it “New Mogadishu,” after the lawless capital of Somalia, where life is worth about as much as a bullet. “The Ghetto,” says Kone, a refugee from Liberia, “is worse than any slum in Africa.” But where else can he go? His parents are dead, he says. He was a child when he left Liberia in 1991.

Kone, now 30, is wearing sandals and a dirty shirt, and he has a short haircut. His eyes are dry and empty. On most days, he leaves the settlement early in the morning and walks the 15 kilometers (9 miles) to Foggia, the nearest city, where he waits for work at an intersection with dozens of other day laborers from Eastern Europe and Africa. Farmers from the region hire them to work in the fields — but, in the economic crisis, even these jobs are now hard to come by. Kone says that he hasn’t been offered work in three weeks. On days like this, he has no choice but to return to the camp and wait for the next morning.

Hundreds of refugees live in New Mogadishu. The slum in the fields developed around a few ruins that the Italians abandoned long ago. The refugees have built huts out of corrugated metal, plywood and plastic tarps. They sleep on worn mattresses or pieces of cardboard. There is no electricity, no gas, no running water. The slum residents go the nearest pond to bathe. Rats scurry through the garbage. The sick lean against the walls of their huts. Some are so sick that they hallucinate.

The United Nations estimates that 56,000 people fled by boat from African countries to Italy in 2011. The number declined significantly in 2012, but there were still thousands of refugees. More than one in three refugees is given a residence permit in Italy. Few other European Union countries are as generous with their residence permits, but in Italy the refugees are left to fend for themselves. Few manage to find work and a place to stay. They vegetate in parks or in slums like the Ghetto in Apulia, where they have no medical care. The refugees have become the targets of attacks by right-wing radicals. The men work for low wages in the fields or in construction. The women prostitute themselves.

Uniform Asylum for the EU

Last week, after a 14-year dispute, the EU countries agreed on a uniform asylum system. The law promises similar standards for refugees in all 27 EU countries, where the rules and duration of asylum proceedings have now been harmonized. But the most important part of the law, the controversial Dublin II regulation of 2003, remains largely untouched.

Under Dublin II, every refugee who reaches Europe can only apply for asylum in the country he or she enters first. Refugees who receive a residence permit are generally permitted to travel in the Schengen zone for up to three months. However, they are barred from working or living in countries other than the one that granted them residence.

The rule benefits Germany, which is surrounded by EU countries. The German government invokes the Dublin II regulation when it sends refugees back to other EU countries. Italy, like many countries on the EU’s external border, is unable to cope with the asylum seekers. But by treating the new arrivals so poorly, the government in Rome also creates incentives for them to leave the country.

Since May, several hundred Libyan refugees in Hamburg have been protesting against their deportation to Italy. The authorities there released them from emergency shelters in the winter, offering them temporary residence permits and €500 ($660) — but no real prospects. Their fate has revived the debate over whether the Dublin II regulation makes sense.

Most of the people living in New Mogadishu are recognized refugees. They were granted protection on humanitarian or other grounds, which applies when, for example, there is a war in a refugee’s native country. In Germany, those who have been granted this status are entitled to social services, accommodation and integration courses. But Italy provides none of these things to refugees. SPRAR, Italy’s state-run protection program, has only 3,000 slots — for 75,000 people in need, as the Italian refugee council estimated in 2012. As a result, many refugees become homeless as soon as they leave the camps.

A Life of War and Flight

That was also the case with Sekou Kone. His voice breaks when he talks about his life, and he spends a long time searching for the right words. The basic information about his case is detailed in an identification card he received from the UN Refugee Agency. Kone was born in Liberia in 1983, the youngest of three siblings. When he was six, civil war erupted in his country, claiming 250,000 lives.

Kone’s father was a soldier, and both he and Kone’s mother were murdered by supporters of warlord Charles Taylor. He speaks haltingly as he tells his story. As a boy, he found shelter in a refugee camp in Guinea, where he went to school. But Guinea is poor and, according to Transparency International, one of the most corrupt countries in Africa. When he was older, he went to Libya to work as a laborer, slaving away on construction sites for three years. Then the unrest in the Arab world engulfed the country. With the help of NATO, the Libyans overthrew dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Some of the Libyan rebels suspected black immigrants of supporting Gadhafi. For the third time, Kone found himself fleeing a country.

In the early summer of 2011, he took a boat to Lampedusa, an Italian island in the Mediterranean. From there he was transferred to Sicily. A few months earlier, the uprising in Tunisia had prompted the Italian government to declare a “North African Emergency,” and it created housing with EU support. But according to reports by refugee organizations, the African refugees hardly benefited from the policy. Hotel owners and businesspeople lined their pockets instead.

Kone was housed in a hotel. He remembers that the refugees lived on the upper floors, while tourists stayed on the lower floors. He was given something to eat once a day but, as he says, the food was often spoiled. He was forced to leave the hotel after a year. He was given a document, a residence permit for “humanitarian” reasons, but Kone had no idea where to go. He slept in parks and under bridges in Palermo, until other refugees told him about the Ghetto in Apulia.

Kone shuffles through the labyrinth of huts. The stench of burning garbage hangs in the air. Young people are playing checkers on homemade boards, and a man is working on a scooter. Some of the refugees, who worked as mechanics and engineers in their native countries, occasionally repair cars that Italians bring to them.

Politicians in Foggia are familiar with conditions in the Ghetto. The authorities installed toilets for a time, but residents say that they removed them a few weeks ago. Now urine trickles along the paths again. Kone says that people in Africa used to say that Europe was a paradise — and yet, for him, Italy is a hell on earth. Last fall, he tried to get away for the first time.

To Germany and Back

Kone had saved enough money by working in the fields to buy a bus ticket from Italy to Germany. He arrived in Hamburg with €10 ($13) and the clothes on his back. He was mesmerized by the city’s wealth, he says. The streets were wide and clean, and pedestrians carrying shopping bags crowded in front of boutiques.

For the first few weeks, Kone lived on the street with other refugees. He eventually found accommodation in the Pik As homeless shelter. He was never as happy in Europe as he was while living in the shelter, he says. He received regular meals, and a social worker gave him a dictionary.

Kone dreamed of going to school in Hamburg, and of getting a job and eventually renting his own apartment. But as he was walking from the train station to the homeless shelter one December evening, the police arrested him. They confiscated his documents and told him he had a week to leave Germany. Kone sought help at the Café Exil, a counseling center for refugees. Workers there advised him to leave Germany voluntarily, or else he would be deported and barred from entering the country again. They bought him a train ticket to Italy, and by Christmas 2012, Kone was back in New Mogadishu.

It is now early summer and the sun is beating down on the surrounding fields. A few kilometers away, men in shirts full of holes are weeding the fields or harvesting asparagus. Very few of them earn more than €3 an hour, and hardly anyone has a work contract or health insurance.

According to a 2008 study by the organization Doctors Without Borders, the Italian authorities are aware of the conditions under which immigrants work in the fields, but they say nothing because the agricultural sector needs low-wage workers. Hardly any Italians work in the fields anymore, says a farmer from Foggia. Without the Africans and Eastern Europeans, he adds, half of the farms in the region would have been shut down long ago.

Unwelcome in Italy

Italy doesn’t grant its citizens classic welfare benefits. Instead, it merely pays for various aid programs for the poor. When Italians lose their jobs, they usually receive support from their family. Refugees who are released from reception camps after one or two years are left to fend for themselves. Some speak broken Italian. Many business owners are prejudiced against blacks. In 2012, the European Council warned of “growing xenophobia and racist violence against immigrants” in Italy.

In Rome alone, about 4,000 refugees lived on the street or squatted empty houses last year. The situation has deteriorated since the Italian government shut down the accommodations sponsored by the North African Emergency program. All of a sudden, thousands of people had no place to stay. Some now live in Rome train stations, sleeping on abandoned tracks, or in basic accommodations like the “Palace of Peace,” a former university building on the city’s outskirts.

When Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, visited the “Palace” last summer, he reported that conditions there were “shocking.” The “almost complete absence” of an integration system in Italy, Muižnieks wrote in his report, had led to “a serious human rights problem.”

In 2011, judges on the European Court of Justice delivered a basic judgment on the Dublin process, under which countries like Germany, before deporting refugees to another EU country, must first examine whether they will be guaranteed their civil rights there. The German government no longer sends refugees back to Greece.

German courts also have concerns about Italy. In more than 200 cases, judges have suspended deportations to the Mediterranean country. For instance, an administrative court in Frankfurt argued, in its grounds for a decision, that there was a “concrete risk that if the applicant is deported to Italy, she could face inhuman and degrading treatment.”

But German authorities continue to deport refugees to Italy. Manfred Schmidt, president of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, knows how refugees are sometimes treated in Italy. However, he also knows that his boss, Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), likes to portray himself as a hardliner when it comes to so-called “poverty immigrants”, those who come to the country with the intent of living off the social welfare system. As a result, Schmidt says that there is no reason to make any changes to the policy of deporting refugees to Italy.

Eternal Deportation

In the evenings, when workers return from the fields, New Mogadishu fills with a jumble of voices. Fires burn under cooking pots in front of huts. Women are carving up a chicken. A group of men is sitting around a transistor radio. Almost every resident of the slum has left for another European country and been deported at least once. Many have kept the bus, train or airline tickets from Germany back to Italy.

Kone remained in the Ghetto for one-and-a-half months before he made a second attempt, in February, to reach Germany. He took a long-distance bus once again, but this time the police detained him just past the German-Austrian border. They ordered him off the bus, checked his papers and took him to prison. He remained in custody pending deportation for several days. The officers showed him a document stating that he was guilty of entering German territory illegally. Kone wept and lashed out at the officers, but to no avail. The officers put him on a train back to Italy.

When the European Parliament passed a bill creating a joint asylum system last Wednesday, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs was pleased that a major legislative effort had been completed. The European Commission had proposed suspending deportations to countries with precarious asylum systems, but the passage was deleted. And the EU countries are also still a long way from establishing uniform standards for refugees.

The Ghetto is dark at night, except in Nicola’s bar. The Italian runs a brothel and a bar, and he has almost no trouble with the authorities in the practically lawless slum. The prostitutes are from African countries or Eastern Europe. Cars are parked on the path outside. The patrons are Italians looking for cheap alcohol and cheap sex.

There is a gleaming disco ball, an action film is on TV, and the room smells of perfume and marijuana. Women with painted nails and tired faces are sitting on the bars. They talk about johns who abuse them. When asked what she wants most, a woman responds with only a few words: “To get out of Italy.”

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan




“Ghetto” is the name that seasonal African workers gave to a slum that is in the middle of the captains, the agricultural region in the north of Apulia, in Southern Italy. A real town, organized in barracks built around a few abandoned buildings. The huts are made with cardboard, recycled wood, twine and rope. During the harvest season of tomatoes in the Ghetto live between eight hundred and a thousand people, most of which come from West Africa. Seasonal workers earn on average between 20 and 25 Euros per day, from which must be deducted about 5 Euros for transport in the fields, 3.5 Euros for a sandwich in the evening, 1.5 Euros for a bottle of water and 20 Euros per month for the rent of a mattress in a shack. After a day in the fields, the workers return to the barracks of the Ghetto, mattresses smashed flat on the dirt floor, some blanket lying in the dust and hanging clothes on plastic threads. The rooms housing the bathrooms are made in the best case with four plastic walls, or with curtains hung on pegs. No pipes, only a plastic bucket that must be filled before the tank. In the Ghetto there is no running water or electricity. The camp was built near some abandoned houses. In Italy there are many laborers who live in these conditions.