Living on Mafia Leftovers: Life in Italy’s Biggest Refugee Camp

Neglect breeds crime and violence at Cara di Mineo in Sicily, where residents trade cigarettes in order to get by as they wait for asylum decisions. A new trial is expected to reveal the profiteers of Italy’s failing reception system.

Written by Leanne Tory-Murphy Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
The Cara di Mineo complex in eastern Sicily covers 60 acres (24 hectares).ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images

CARA DI MINEO, Italy – The first glimpse of Italy’s largest refugee camp brings to mind an American suburb with its neat rows of houses in warm hues, fronted by square lawns. The spell is broken at the entrance, where barbed-wire fences are manned by heavily armed soldiers in camouflage gear.

Cara di Mineo, also known as Solidarity Village, houses roughly 3,000 asylum seekers far away from the towns and cities of eastern Sicily and owes its suburban look to the U.S. soldiers at the nearby Sigonella base, who once barracked here.

Amadou, a young man from Senegal, arrived at the seemingly benign camp at the end of a life-threatening journey. He left his home in rural West Africa after his parents died. With nothing more than a life of subsistence farming ahead of him and no money to put his three sisters through school, Amadou decided to search for “something better.”

He could not know how little salvation he would find in Sicily and Cara di Mineo.

The solidarity of which the camp boasts in its name appears to apply less to its inhabitants than to its operators and local politicians, who stand accused of profiting from corruption. In recent years, several graft trials have racked up convictions. Another one, due in May, comes on the heels of a year-long parliamentary investigation that revealed fraud, misuse of public funds and the offering of jobs and service contracts in exchange for political favors and votes.

The May hearings will feature eminent accused including Anna Aloisi, the right-wing mayor of Mineo, the small town nearest the camp; Luca Odevaine, a former chief of police in Rome and former deputy chief of the Cabinet; Giuseppe Castiglione, the Under-Secretary for Agricultural Policies; as well as a dozen others. They face charges ranging from corruption and intimidation in bidding and hiring processes related to the camp to electoral fraud and exchanging refugee-related contracts for votes.

The toxic mix of waiting and unhappiness at conditions has taken its toll on residents. An average of 10 people die in the camp each year, mostly from natural causes but the murder of a 26-year-old Nigerian Francis Miracle in January – for which her boyfriend has been arrested – and the suicide of a 20-year-old Eritrean, Mulue Ghirmay, in 2013 both shook residents. Numerous other cases of violence and sex trafficking have also been documented. Despite the military presence at the center, residents say the situation continues.

Amadou says that women are made to engage in sex work both inside the camp and on the surrounding highways and that the police and the administration know what is going on but don’t do anything about it.

The famous maxim of Italy’s martyred anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone was “follow the money and you will find the Mafia.” Italy spent an estimated $3.1 billion throughout the country on housing, clothing, feeding, educating and integrating asylum seekers in 2016. Most reception centers were kept much smaller than Cara di Mineo and run by private cooperatives, basically consortiums of owners, who bid for public contracts through prefectures under the remit of the Ministry of the Interior.

Organized crime networks in Italy have proven adept at exploiting public funds and the migrant reception system is no exception, with reported intimidation in the bidding process helping to secure these lucrative contracts.

In 2014, Rome’s chief prosecutor launched a police investigation known as Mafia Capitale, which found that an organized crime syndicate had siphoned off millions of euros intended for public services, and had infiltrated the migrant reception system, securing contracts and then providing substandard or nonexistent services to asylum seekers. It resulted in more than 40 convictions.

Salvatore Buzzi, one of the alleged bosses, was caught on wiretap boasting, “Do you have any idea how much I make off of migrants? They’re more profitable than drugs.” The trials at the Cara di Mineo are considered to be the Sicilian branch of the Mafia Capitale since they have ties directly back to politicians in Rome.

Migrants at the Cara di Mineo complex. (Gideon Mendel/Corbis via Getty Images)

Cara di Mineo camp receives about $125 million each year, but residents suspect that they are being sold short.

Amadou has been at the center for more than two years awaiting his asylum decision and says that instead of receiving the $3 day to which they are entitled, residents are handed packs of cigarettes that they can then trade as currency. The operators value each pack at $6, but the residents are only able to sell them for around $5.

He says that some residents leave their account for a month and collect all of their cigarette packs at once so that they can try to start a small business. He took a video of the cigarette distribution process that shows people waiting in line and walking up one by one to a small window, where they receive a pack or two and are then checked off a list.

In a May 2017 interview, Sebastiano Maccarrone, then director of the camp, denied that people were given cigarettes in lieu of daily allowances. He also denied that any sex work was taking place inside the camp. His replacement, Giuseppe di Natale, has sought to draw a line under past problems, denying the cigarette barter system exists, and attributing complaints to the long wait for asylum decisions, saying: “unfortunately this is how Italian bureaucracy works and we can’t do anything about it.”

Amadou says the camp’s current operators also cut corners by providing poor-quality food. He alleges that they always hand out the same items, usually pre-packaged pasta or rice. The meagre and monotonous supplies have forced him and other residents to seek treatment for malnourishment and sickness at the on-site medical center.

When residents have a bit of money, he says, they prefer to buy groceries at stores outside the camp but that is not always possible, and formally residents are not permitted to cook their own food, though many do anyway.

Local agricultural employers benefit from having thousands of people on their doorstep desperate for work, and isolated from any urban centers. The camp is surrounded by hilly fields, so while residents are free to come and go, there is very limited transportation to nearby towns, let alone the nearest city of Catania, a 90-minute drive away.

Residents try to find what work they can, sometimes bicycling two hours each way to a farm to harvest oranges, potatoes or carrots, often making only $3.50 per hour. One union representative said that he had not heard of such low rates of pay since the 1970s.

Alberto Biondo, who monitors the camp for the activist group Borderline Sicilia, describes the contradiction in anti-immigrant sentiment in a place that has profited generously from migrant reception: “The townspeople protested against the opening of Mineo (reception center), and today these same people protest against closing it. Because it provides employment to a thousand people. A thousand families. This whole town lives because of the center.”

Doctors for Human Rights, or MEDU in its Italian acronym, provides medical services inside the camp. It produced a report in May 2015 that said the camp was “incompatible with human dignity.”

The report decries the size of the structure and the long stays in a place set up to keep people for 35 days, as well as the difficulty residents have in accessing legal, health and psychological support services. The neglect is a breeding ground for violence and criminal acts largely ignored by the police.

Alfonso di Stefano of the Anti-Racist Network of Catania, which regularly monitors the center, says there have been protests at the Cara since it was first opened in 2011 to respond to the influx of North Africans during the Arab Spring.

He says that during that time there was an effort to meet with the municipal government of Mineo to propose an alternative to the camp. Instead of one massive and isolated camp, they proposed opening many small and medium-sized reception centers that would be better able to pursue “a genuine plan for social integration, instead of segregating them” in such an isolated place.

But the large cooperative was opposed to this recommendation and the Cara has remained open since. The parliamentary commission which published its findings in June wrote that the Cara di Mineo should be closed “as quickly as possible.” Eight months later the center remains open and Di Stefano’s organization is in the process of launching a national appeal to have it closed.

This past June, Amadou and several hundred other residents staged a road block to protest their living conditions and the long wait for documents. They demanded the right to cook their own food, to receive the pocket money to which they are entitled instead of packs of cigarettes and to speed up the legal process for their documents.

Little has changed since the protest and after more than two years at Cara di Mineo, Amadou says that no matter what happens with his asylum appeal he will leave the camp: “I have to go outside to find and job and have a better life … everything has an end, you know?”

* Amadou’s name has been changed to protect his identity during an ongoing asylum application.

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