Page last updated at 09:42 GMT, Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Italy immigrants fall into clutches of mafia

Africans demonstrate in Italy
Immigrants in Italy have to rely on each other for protection

Illegal immigrants to Italy get little shelter from the law - leaving them prime targets for exploitation by the local mafia, finds the BBC's Emma Wallis in Castel Volturno, near Naples.

"Immigration is not the first problem of Castel Volturno, it's Camorra, this system of illegality," says Padre Filippo, a Catholic missionary who lives and works in Castel Volturno with Italy's biggest African population.

The Camorra are the mafia in the Campania region, made world-infamous by Roberto Saviano's best-selling book and film, Gomorra.

"Castel Volturno… is a forgotten land, that Camorra is using for their business, and that is the problem. The state here is absolutely absent," says Padre Filippo.

In the vacuum left by the state, illegality reigns, and it is possible to survive here without papers.

The local council was dissolved in January for its failure to collect taxes and dispose of residents' rubbish. The town is now run by an emergency prefect.

The only real indications of the state are the road blocks manned by police, carabinieri and soldiers. They arrived in September 2008 after six West Africans were apparently shot dead by members of the Casalesi, one of the Camorra's most powerful clans. The trial is under way at the moment.

Broken dreams

Violence is not obvious in this region, but suspicion whistles through the empty hulks of villas, holiday villages and hotels that crouch menacingly along the Via Domitiana, the coast road to Naples.

Poster commemorating one of six Africans killed in Castel Volturno, Italy, in September 2008
Tensions boiled over with the murder of six Africans in September 2008

The buildings are a testament to the financial clout of the Camorra - but also to the absence of planning permission.

Projects halted half-way through by the state are ten-a-penny here, and are the most visible casualties of the not-so-bloodless civil war between the Italian state and the Camorra, whose tentacles easily gain a stranglehold in places like Castel Volturno, where poverty and desperation are the order of the day.

The other thing you notice all along the roads in town are bicycles, chained up along fences by the bus stops, where every morning at the crack of dawn thousands of migrant workers line up in the hope of finding a job for the day.

Cars, coaches and buses file by to pick them up and transport them to the fields or building sites, where, if they are lucky, they are paid 25-35 euros (£22-26) a day. The unlucky ones head home mid-morning, dejectedly picking up their bikes and cycling back down the road that Padre Filippo has nicknamed "the boulevard of broken dreams".

After violence against African farm workers exploded in the southern Italian town of Rosarno, in southern Italy, at the beginning of January, the uncomfortable symbiosis between organised crime and illegal immigration was laid bare.

Phantom presence

Now Italy's Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni, is creating task forces to crack down on immigration. He says he hopes, by doing so, to hit organised crime where it hurts; by turning off the flow of cheap illegal labour.

Caserta's police commissioner, Guido Nicolo Longo, said that his force's aim was to check up on the migrants and try to legalise their work status, so that the revenue they generate could be funnelled to the state's coffers, instead of enriching organised crime.

Rubbish on streets of Castel Volturno, Italy
Lawlessness has left rubbish piling up on the streets

The proposal seems to pay lip service to a centre-left idea of integration through legalisation. But the migrants themselves, and Padre Filippo, say that that is not how it works in reality.

They complain of police checks increasing, nights spent in the cells and, at times, violent treatment at the hands of some officers.

Without any protection from the police, and desperate to work in order to survive, they become vulnerable to O sistema - organised crime - which effectively provides an alternative system to the state.

Campania's councillor for immigration, Lili De Felice, said that her region had put in place an 18m-euro (£16m) fund for services to migrants. But those without papers cannot access it. They barely speak Italian, and without the correct work permits they are just a phantom presence in a lawless town.

Forced underground

The government's new plan for integration is predicated on strict criteria, giving immigrants two years to learn fluent Italian and pass a series of citizenship tests - a time limit that many of the Ghanaians in Castel Volturno have already exceeded.

One of them, Dani, stands in a ripped coat and begs the BBC to tell the world how difficult it is for illegal migrants in Italy.

He says he has been unable to send back even 10 euros to his wife and children in the last few months, as he regularly goes for weeks without working at all.

What he thought was going to be paradise, has turned into a living hell.

Roberto Saviano, the best selling author of Gomorra, rang a warning bell in the New York Times recently.

He sees the migrants revolt in Rosarno as a way of standing up to the mafia. He believes that if the Italian authorities continue to criminalise migrants by targeting them, instead of the Camorra itself, then conversely they will push the Africans into the arms of organised crime in search of protection.

He pleads for the Africans to stay, stand up and fight the Camorra, which has infiltrated almost every inch of Campania.

But, as the sun sets low and red in the sky, sliding across rubbish dumps and the polluted river that runs into the sea, a dusty gloom falls over the town and the migrants line up along the road, hiding from the police, and hoping to find work.

For the moment, the cogs of the Camorra's wheels show no sign of stopping.

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