At the Frontiers of Europe

In early May, five members of The Society of International Affairs participated in a project in Palermo, Italy about how civil society can work against organized crime. Sicily is famous for its mafia, yet the understanding of most people abroad is limited to gangster movies and the mafia wars in the 1980s and 1990s. This project was essentially about understanding, on a deeper level, how the strong influence of the mafia affects the everyday lives of people. There were participants from seven different countries, therefor discussing how challenges are similar or differ in different countries was also an important part of the project.

Adam Josefsson was one of the Swedish participants. He sat down with, and interviewed Nicola Teresi from the organization “Libera”. Nicola works in Sicily and Lampedusa with researching and informing about how international trafficking of humans is organized. Although migration wasn’t the main topic of the project in Palermo, it has a clear connection to international organized crime. Understanding this issue is of especially big importance at the moment, because Europe is currently receiving a big wave of refugees, and how the situation should be dealt with is one of the most important policy debates within the EU. Sicily is at the southern frontier of the EU, and so it is one of the places within the EU where the various dimensions of the issue are most noticeable.

[toggle title=”FACTS”] Libera. Associations, names and numbers against the mafias is an Italian association founded in 1995. It followed popular uprising against the mafia. Libera’s aim is to educate how organized crime affects society, and to promote a civic culture that is based on respect for other people. Libera is an umbrella association for the anti-mafia movement, with around 1500 local groups tied to it, including both civil society groups and, for example schools. Libera plays an important role in facilitating the reallocation of confiscated mafia lands to civil society, and Libera sells agricultural products farmed by these cooperatives. There are proven connections between international migration and organized crime, so Libera also works with researching this issue.[/toggle]

What is your relationship to the theme of migration?
Libera is interested in human trafficking. We focus on organized crime and so we have learnt that on the international level there are big and small criminal groups who speculate on the lives of people. So I’m working with research, education and the creation of a culture surrounding the theme of immigration, in which the Italian people can understand what’s happening abroad. We consider all the dead on the Mediterranean, victims of international organized crime.

Which are these criminal groups and what are the links between them?
There are a lot of groups. We can picture a network of international traffic that starts in the home countries of migrants. These are primarily countries in Central sub-Saharan Africa, and on the Horn of Africa. There are also countries in Asia from which people escape from wars and persecution. It’s clear that there are persons already in the home countries who profit from the needs of refugees. They get paid to organize these very long journeys, going through many transit countries. The final destination in Africa is usually Libya, which is the country from which people depart from to Lampedusa in Italy.

These criminal groups are often small and very flexible, and they profit from holding the migrants as slaves. They control their movement and make them call their families and ask for money. If they don’t do this, traffickers can get violent and torture them, and eventually their families are forced to sell practically everything they have to send money and liberate their children. When arriving at the coast of Libya there are criminal groups who control fishing boats that can take migrants to Italian waters. We’ve discovered that these groups are sometimes in contact with European criminal groups, who will then enable migrants to get to other European countries. The refugees often want to go to places where they have friends, relatives and working opportunities, and a refugee reception system that works. The majority of people who arrive in Italy don’t want to stay here. In 2014, around 170 000 migrants arrived in Italy, of which around 100 000 disappeared. We don’t know exactly where they’ve gone, but surely they’ve received help to leave Italy by these criminal groups.

How does the Italian reception system work and what sort of help do the refugees get? Is it true that Italy doesn’t register migrants, as is required according to the Dublin Accord?
In general, the Italian reception system works poorly. We only have a limited number of places in the system, which doesn’t cover the total number of refugees who come here. It’s a precarious system that lacks capacity, and foremost it has been shown in legal investigations that the big cooperatives that own the reception centres benefit from the long time that the refugees have to stay there. This is another form of speculation on the lives of the refugees, and we see a slow processing of asylum applications. What this means in practice is that the more refugees you can fit in one centre, the more money you can earn from it. For example looking at Rome, we can see that criminal groups control the cooperatives running the centres with connections to politicians and businessmen. They receive thousands of refugees, without giving them proper services, which means that they can make big profits. It’s a similar situation in all of Italy, even though the picture sometimes looks different.

There are associations and cooperatives helping immigrants in a great way, but the point is that these are small actors. So the general picture that emerges from the research on this is that the system doesn’t work very well, and in addition to this there are the problems connected to European politics. The Dublin Accord says that the first European country that migrants arrive to must register them, and then they must apply for asylum in that country. So in this case it means that they’ll have to stay in Italy. This system is rather badly constructed and dangerous. It doesn’t allow for a redistribution of immigrants in the whole of Europe, a redistribution that would guarantee solidarity and sustainability of the European reception system. This system constrains the immigrants so that they’ll have to remain in Italy even though most of them don’t want to, and in any case the Italian reception system doesn’t have the capacity to receive all of them. It’s believed that in some cases immigrants aren’t identified, with the officials choosing to turn a blind eye and let them go to other countries. This happens because Italy has a reception system that works poorly.

Which are the immigrants that choose to stay in Sicily and what sort of life awaits them here?
Today Sicily is providing refuge to around 15 000 immigrants, living in many different centres dispersed throughout the island. In general, their lives are characterized by waiting and problems. They have to wait out the long bureaucratic process to apply for a visa or the right to asylum. These people are heaped together in the centres without the opportunities to do anything. Often they receive some teaching of Italian, however from what I know it’s rare that these people have any opportunities to work, since having the residence permit is a requirement to be hired. They are in great need to work to provide for themselves and to send money to their families, but since they aren’t allowed to they have to make do; they can try to get by through illegal means. We know for a fact that in the centre in Mineo close to Catania, there is a system of using the immigrants as workforce for very low wages. In the morning people are being recruited, sometimes by mafia members, who in turn have deals with farmers who want to reduce their costs so they also turn a blind eye and pay the people who work all day very little. This phenomenon is a form of slavery, which exists in all regions of Italy.

Anyone who has ever eaten a vegetable or fruit in Italy has surely eaten something that was produced with slave labour. This is a problem that regards the whole of Italy, and which is related to organized crime.

Is this something that is talked about in the public debate?
Not much. There have been some important journalistic investigations. There is information about this in newspapers, but it’s really not given much attention. And on television, they really don’t talk much about this. And the reason is that Italy and Europe has a need for slave labour. We turn a blind eye and benefit from this system to fill our tables.

What opinions do people in Italy have of immigrants in general?
The consequence of the misinformation spread by the media, especially in the times of economical crisis, is that there is a war between different groups of poor people. Also in Italy we have now started to witness a cavalcade from political parties on the extreme right. What do I mean by calling it a war among the poor? On television, they always show pictures displaying a form of fake emergency. It’s portrayed as an invasion of immigrants, which really isn’t the case. Furthermore, they say that these people are welcomed by the state and given much help and money. In reality it isn’t like this. The Italian reception system entitles each immigrant 30 Euros per day, but this money never reaches the actual person. It’s common that the immigrants don’t get more than 2,50 Euro per day. All the money goes to the businesses and cooperatives that run the Italian reception system. However, people in Italy don’t know about this, so there is a growing sentiment that Italians are competing with the immigrants who arrive at our coasts. The primary reason for this is the influence of the media who manipulates news stories. It’s also the fault of politicians who spread hate and racism, and who use this information to legitimize their own bitterness towards people fleeing to Italy.

Do we see the same situation in Sicily as in Italy overall?
From my point of view, there is a difference on the cultural level. This is because the racist party of Italy, namely the Northern League, was born in Northern regions. So as a cultural phenomenon, racism is stronger in the North. But it’s clear that this sentiment exists throughout the whole country, and with more and more people coming here, people are led to believe that we’re being invaded. People believe that it’s not right to give immigrants a place to stay, when at the same time ten million Italians are living in relative poverty.

Are the Italian regions taking an equal responsibility to deal with the situation?
No, this isn’t the case, because this depends on the number of immigrants that they accept. Sicily is the region that receives the most, around 15 000 last year, while the figures for most regions are much lower. And in the few regions where the Northern League is in power, they are starting to fight against receiving more people.

How is the situation on Lampedusa today?
Right now the centre on Lampedusa is full of immigrants. The centre on Lampedusa was previously in a state of collapse, because it had to receive too many people. This centre assists in the rescuing of people, and it’s a sort of hospital where people can make a stop to rest. Immediately after this stop, they are transferred, because the law says that they have to be within 72 hours. Sometimes the system works exactly like this, but when too many people come at the same time, they have to stay there longer. Even though it’s not a good place for them to be. In any case, the population of the island of Lampedusa is very welcoming. It’s a population that lives by the law of the sea, and they know that people in difficult situations need help. However the people of Lampedusa hate the journalists who write false or mistaken stories, in which they write that migrants have invaded Lampedusa. Firstly, this isn’t true. Secondly, it hurts the tourism of the island. It creates an image to the rest of the world that immigrants have invaded Lampedusa when this is really not the case.

Finally, following the European debate on migration policy, do you see any hope for a solution for these problems?
The hope is my personal, because I’m an optimistic person. Perhaps the historical phenomenon of migration can help Europe make sense of the current situation. What’s the kind of Europe we want?

Do we want a Fortress Europe, which closes its borders, and militarizes, which is what’s happening now, or do we want a Europe for the people, based on rights, which was the original idea of the European Union?

This is a choice that needs to be made, and it’s a really important one. The number seeking shelter here is a number that the EU can absolutely accommodate. What’s needed to do this is just to create a system based on shared burdens, with quotas for each country.

Today, I read in the newspapers that maybe they’re setting up a common European system on quotas. But at the same time the EU is planning to bombard the migrant boats, and to do international police operations in Libya. In reality these are measures that are absolutely the wrong ones, for many motives. Firstly, an international operation without Libyan consent is an act of war. Secondly, the person who drives a boat to Lampedusa, is hardly ever a human trafficker, but instead just a poor person who in exchange for money is assigned to this job. And even in the cases where the smuggler is the real organizer, it doesn’t improve the situation much to arrest him because it doesn’t stop the phenomenon of slavery and exploitation in the home and transit countries. Arresting individual traffickers can never stop the smuggling. It’s only granting people rights that can do this. So there are political possibilities to help the migrants, and to return to a Europe that safeguards the rights of everyone. I hope that this is the path that we’ll choose, instead of the military solution.

Writer: Adam Josefsson

Photographer: Weronika Perlinski


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