Guest post by Sergio Goffredo and Susi Meret, Dept. Of Culture and Global Studies, Aalborg University, Denmark. Sergio is a research assistant in the faculty of social sciences, Aalborg University, in the department of Culture and Global Studies and the Center for the Study of Migration and Diversity (CoMID). Susi is associate professor at the department of Culture and Global Studies, Aalborg University and affiliated with the CoMID (Centre for the Studies of Migration and Diversity) research group. They both do activist and participatory research with and on refugee-led, self-organised movements in Germany, Italy and France. They were recently in Borgo Mezzanone and part of the latest demonstrations for migrants’ rights held in Foggia and Rome between October 2016 and March 2017. This is the seventh instalment of Border Criminologies’ themed series on ‘The Memory Politics of Migration at Borderscapes, organised by Karina Horsti.

Despite the unremitting efforts made by European countries to curb down migration flows along the Mediterranean route, Italy remains one of the main gateways to Europe for displaced people from Africa and the Middle East. For many, Italy is no longer a transit country, but a place of confinement, exploitation and deportability (see De Genova and De Genova and Peutz). The enforcement of stricter migration and asylum laws in Italy and Europe has only worsened the country’s already critical conditions with regard to the reception system and the recognition of basic rights to asylum seekers. The emergency-based model run by Italian governments over decades has contributed to feelings of uncertainty, precarity and fear among migrants. And the use of the state of emergency as a rule to manage migration has encouraged profit-making businesses that cream off state funds earmarked for asylum seekers and the administration of reception centers, the so called CARA (Centri di Accoglienza per Richiedenti Asilo, Centres for the Accomodation of Asylum Seekers). Established in 2002, CARAs are the main reception and accommodation sites for asylum seekers awaiting a decision on their application. It is main news of these days that the mafia infiltrated the administration of the CARA of Sant' Anna, one of Italy's largest reception centres in the Calabria region.

Photo: Sergio Goffredo

Deprived of alternatives in the present and of prospects for their future, increasing numbers of refugees, and migrants with and without papers succumb to the demand for underpaid and easily exploitable work force in the agricultural sector and end up living under inhuman and slave-like conditions in the many slums and ghettoes scattered across Italy. These spaces of confinement and enslavement feed the country’s ‘Ghetto Economy’, whose reproduction increasingly relies on the supply of cheap, underpaid, over-exploitable labour force; the same labour which helps make Italy’s agricultural sector (and not only) internationally competitive on the global markets. Borgo Mezzanone, a small village in the Northern part of Apulia, is one of these places.

Borgo Mezzanone is also the location of Italy’s third biggest and most populated CARA. As such, it captures how historical practices of asylum, confinement, isolation and exploitation occur simultaneously, side-by-side, affecting the space, the place and the people living in it. It also manifestly shows on the one side migrants’ survival practices and on the other how these remain (and are made) invisible to the public eye. Decades of asylum policies driven by a paradigm based on the state of emergency have shaped and re-shaped Borgo Mezzanone, creating a space where migrants of past and present Italian and European refugee crises live side-by-side.  

The CARA of Borgo Mezzanone was established in 2005 on the site of a former military airbase. In the late 1990s, this place also hosted refugees from Kosovo into caravans placed on the 3 km long dismissed airstrip. Between 2002 and 2004, the authorities transformed the emergency facility into a permanent reception centre. The building has a capacity for 636 people and it is managed by the cooperative Sisifo, but the centre is often overpopulated and it is virtually impossible to know for sure how many live in it, as reliable figures are hard to come by. Journalists and activists are not allowed to access these facilities in view of the legal restrictions introduced in 2011 by a directive of the Interior Minister as yet another state-of-emergency motivated measure.

In the adjacent space of the CARA, practices of irregularization and confinement take place, virtually undisturbed. As the actual stratified topography reveals, a ghetto space literally surfaces only a few metres beyond the fences surrounding the CARA, as its physical extension. In the ghettoized space, a multitude of wooden, concrete and plastic huts have been erected. On average 500 people live there, and many more during the tomato harvesting season.

People in the ‘Pista-Borgo Mezzanone’ –as this area is known of, face daily deprivations: they lack basic sanitary facilities; the area is littered with trash, as there is no municipal waste collection and no health care services are offered. Like San Ferdinando nearby Rosarno and the recently evicted Gran Ghetto of Rignano, the location is remote, isolated and away from public sight, rendering it a convenient recruitment spot for cheap underpaid and overexploited labour force for the local farming season.

What makes Borgo Mezzanone particularly interesting is its proximity to the official reception centre; so close that it is possible to crawl from the holes made in the fences of the CARA building directly into the heart of a ‘ghetto reality’. This proximity facilitates the mutual exchange of basic services between the population in the ghetto and those still living in the CARA: hot water and sanitary facilities, Wi-Fi and electricity from the camp; open prayer rooms for Muslim and Christian Orthodox people, a barber shop, a small bazaar selling spices in the ghetto. For the people outside, the proximity to the CARA is also functional for their survival strategy: it provides an opportunity to move in and out of the ghetto and makes it easier for them to access basic services and build up what has now become an ‘extended’ community of around a thousand people from different ethnic backgrounds: half of them hosted in the CARA, the other half living ouside. This is a place where differences between asylum seekers, refugees, migrants, the documented and undocumented are virtually insignificant.

Photo: Sergio Goffredo

Outside the CARA, Italian police regularly patrol the area to control the movement of people in and out of the ghetto. So it is hard to believe that local authorities are not aware of the situation that unfolds before their eyes. Z. who comes from Niger, reached Italy back in 2009; he is undocumented and settled in Pista-Borgo Mezzanone in 2011. He explains that the shantytown has progressively grown over the years, shaped by the increasing numbers of failed asylum cases and refugees whose life and future nobody will pay attention to once the refugee emergency or crisis is politically declared over.

As Z. recalls, the authorities tried to ‘dismantle everything’ at the end of 2011. However, they soon realised that it would be a challenging task to accommodate all these people and deal with the many bureaucratic obstacles to expel them. On their part, ghetto residents started to protest and demonstrate on the streets claiming their rights as workers to better living and working conditions and healthcare insurance. Concerned about the reactions of the local and national community, local authorities sent the priest of Borgo Mezzanone to pacify the spirited group of people. He promised the people inside that the police would not enter the ghetto, despite its totally unliveable conditions. Despite the unliveable conditions, the authorities would let them stay, an accommodating act of opportunistic tolerance that left all the important problems affecting the daily life of these people unaddressed. Significantly, as Z. further observes, ‘no authorities have shown up in the ghetto since that day’, except for the so-called caporali (unlawful figure responsible for migrant labour recruitment on a daily basis).

People in Borgo Mezzanone, Z. comments, have resigned themselves ‘to live here, and if we don’t protest anymore it is not for fear of potential repercussions, but nothing has really changed, so we keep on living with it’.

Borgo Mezzanone is one of the many functioning ghettos scattered across Italy’s rural areas. This is a reality that allows the Northern lowland areas of Apulia to extract from and work with the ‘ghetto economy’ as part of the region and country’s production system. The so-called ‘Bulgarian ghetto’ in Tressanti, 15 km away from Borgo Mezzanone, and the Gran Ghetto in Rignano Garganico (demolished a few weeks ago), about 40 km west, are other examples of such ‘ghetto economies’.

The almost symbiotic co-existence between the CARA and Pista-Borgo Mezzanone show the failure of the short sighted and state-of-emergency-led asylum politics in Italy and Europe, which have contributed to producing isolation and forms of confinement and marginalisation among migrants (with and without papers) who continue to form a rightless and overexploited migrant population.  

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Goffredo, S. and Meret, S. (2017) Stuck in Place: Confinement and Survival in Borgo Mezzanone. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/06/stuck-place (Accessed [date])