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January 18, 2010

African farm laborers hounded out of Italian town

More than 1,000 Africans fled a southern Italian town over the weekend after a wave of violence against migrant farm workers as Pope Benedict XVI condemned the assaults on immigrants.

An investigation was under way to establish whether local organised crime groups were involved in clashes that left 67 people injured in the Calabrian town of Rosarno -- 31 of them migrants, 19 police officers and 17 locals. Calm was generally restored after two days of unrest.

Police in the regional capital Reggio di Calabria said 1,128 African migrants had left the Rosarno area, with more than 800 transferred to reception centres in the southern towns of Crotone and Bari.

Pope Benedict XVI spoke out against the two days of violence which erupted, saying in his traditional Sunday sermon, "We have to go to the heart of the problem, of the significance of the human being. An immigrant is a human being, different in where they came from, in their culture and tradition, but a person to respect who has rights and responsibilities. Violence must never be a means to solve difficulties," the pope added.

A Rosarno police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity and referring to the possible involvement of the region's 'Ndrangheta network, one of Italy's most brutal organised crime group, said that "several investigations are under way but they have only just started."

'Ndrangheta members are suspected of having exploded a device outside the public prosecutor's office in the regional capital Reggio Calabria earlier this month in a revenge attack.

Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni confirmed that the cause of the two-day unrest in Rosarno with 15,000 residents was being investigated.
Maroni accused the 'Ndrangheta of having "secretly brought thousands of workers into the country" to unscrupulously exploit them. He also criticised local authorities, the migrants' employers and employers' associations for worsening the migrants' condition by paying them poorly and accommodating them in slum quarters.

"Police recognised local 'Ndrangheta clan members in the clashes with the immigrants," Il Quotidiano della Calabria reporter Michele Albanese said.
"The mafia cynically exploits the immigrants. The criminal masterminds know that clandestine immigrants will not even try to revolt because they have no ID and no state protection," anti-mafia priest Luigi Ciotti concurred.

Il Giornale, the newspaper owned by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's family, meanwhile, offered provocative advice for residents of the southern Calabria region: "Rather than shooting negroes, shoot the mafia."

"Why won't Calabrians shoot the mafia? Immigrants are poor and weak, ugly and dirty, perfect targets," the paper said. "Organised crime which keeps security forces in check is powerful, violent, revengeful and therefore must not be bothered," the paper added with a twist of irony.

Local producers, while voicing no regrets for the migrants' flight, fear that without them the region's agriculture -- mainly based on oranges, tangerines and kiwis -- may not survive.

"We don't want them back," said a Rosarno landowner, who would only identify himself as Giuseppe. "We gave the negroes clothes and food, we even gave them meals for Christmas," he added, insisting that no one should "take us for racists."

With cheap Italian farmhands long gone to help harvest the produce grown in the region's mild Mediterranean climate, African migrant workers have been back every year working 12 to 14 hours a day for 20 to 25 euros (29 to 36 dollars) without social security benefits or paying taxes.

Mimmo, owner of a citrus orchard in Rosarno, said some migrants had been "desperate" to work for 10 euros a day. But even at that rate farmers were having problems making a profit, he said.

When speaking to the press most farmers claim they never hired any clandestine workers but charities say 2,000 Africans were illegally employed in the Rosarno area until the latest violence.

"So next year the fruits will not be picked," Domenico, a friend of Giuseppe's, added wearily. "Years ago we had the Romanians, Poles and Bulgarians who worked for not much, but since they have joined the European Union they prefer to work in northern Italy where they make more while working legally."


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