BORGO MEZZANONE, Italy (CN) – A beat-up car carrying African field workers turns off a country highway through this sunny landscape of vineyards and vegetable fields and heads onto a dirt road.
They’re headed home to a shanty town where thousands of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers live in a parallel world. There’s no signpost saying this place exists, so the car serves as a guide to reach it.
The car bounces along, avoiding potholes, and goes from one dirt path to another across open grassy land. Then, the car turns onto a long straight strip of asphalt. It’s an abandoned landing strip behind a former air force base. Another beat-up car shows up and cruises down the strip too.
Suddenly, a visitor is transported from southern Italy into a corner of impoverished Africa.
To the side of the landing strip, a man tosses bags of garbage in the back of a moving truck onto the side of the air strip. This is apparently a dumping ground for the shanty town and there are other piles of waste and discarded items, from an old oven to broken chairs, lining the air strip.
The ghetto then comes into view off to the right. It’s an extensive assemblage of shacks, caravans and makeshift structures – a kind of invisible town with an invisible population that lives off the grid, off the books and out of sight.
The former air force base now serves as an immigrant center run by police and the military. Its entrance is guarded by bored-looking young soldiers.
Behind the base, though, a busy shanty town of about 2,000 or more people has grown up over the years. Most of the people living here work as field hands.
But there also are a few storekeepers selling everything from rice to bottled water to chewing gum. There are a couple of makeshift bars where people sit and drink beer. There is a mosque in one structure – slippers are lined up outside on a rug. There’s a makeshift church for Christians.
People here were unwilling to speak with a Courthouse News reporter and said they were disillusioned with the media because previous news reports had done little to help them. The immigrants here are eager to get Italian residency, find regular work and decent housing.
However, one man, a 29-year-old from Ghana called Musah, agreed to talk. He declined to give his last name and to be photographed.
“This is Africa,” Musah said, speaking in English. “We did not come here to live in Africa. Africa is hell.”
He said he almost died on his journey from Ghana to Italy. He said a vessel he boarded two years ago in Libya sank in the Mediterranean Sea, killing about half of the 145 people aboard. He said friends he was traveling with drowned.
“All the people I came with remained in the Mediterranean Sea. I am the only person who survived,” he said. “I don’t know how to swim. It was just luck. A fisherman saved me.”
He said he has been living in the shanty town for months, working as a field hand and riding a bicycle to his work like so many others do here.
In early January, he said he was riding his bicycle when he was struck by a vehicle. He said he suffered serious injuries and was bedridden for three months.
He complained that the living conditions in the shanty town were atrocious. But he said people had few other options.
“Lots of people do not have documents. Where can we go?” he said, adding that he had no passport and no permit to live in Italy.
“They should help us get documents, so that we can live somewhere better,” he said. “When I have documents, the government can benefit from me, and I can benefit from it. I can pay taxes.”
He was sitting inside a store a friend runs. A computer was on, playing African television.
He said he has a wife and children in Ghana and he hopes to be able to bring them to Italy one day. In Ghana, he said he can make about $9 a day whereas he makes about $28 a day in Italy.
In recent months, Italian authorities have demolished about 60 structures in a bid to remove the shanty town, one of the largest in Italy.
“They want to destroy everything here,” he said.
He said he lived with eight other people in a caravan that was provided to the shanty town by local authorities. To pass the time, they play cards and checkers, cook and eat together, he said.
He added though that the shanty town can be dangerous due to drunken behavior and criminality.
“I trust in God. He’s the only one who can save me. My life is very risky,” he said.
Officials at the military base declined to speak with a Courthouse News reporter and did not return messages seeking comment.
Alessandro Verona of INTERSOS, a non-governmental group that regularly visits the shanty town to provide medical help, said in an email that demolishing places where the immigrants live “just worsens conditions that are already severe.”
He said it was critical for the shanty town’s inhabitants to get the documents they need to stay in Italy and for Italy to combat exploitation by employers, which he said has been a persistent problem for African workers.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)