Reportage. A young Nigerian woman was killed in a fire that consumed a tent city in southern Italy. African migrants work the Italian soil for €20 a day, but they are not provided with safe housing. Yet there are 35,000 empty apartments in that region alone.

Deadly fire lays bare inhumane conditions of migrant workers in Italy

“Nobody cares about us. I just want a job and a place to live. I want a quiet life,“ says Issa, his voice cracking, tears streaming down his face. He is from Ghana, and he is standing before the charred remains of what used to be his “house.”

“It’s not possible. They’re treating us like animals,” Mamadou, another migrant, repeats angrily. “This should not have happened. And the institutions are ignoring us,” he mutters. Ash covers the ground, and the air is filled with an acrid smell. “We could have all died,” whispers a young Senegalese man, 20 years old.

Around 2 a.m. Saturday, a fire broke out in the ghetto in San Ferdinando, in Italy’s Gioia Tauro plain. Perhaps it was a brazier with lit coals, left open during the night against the cold, which gave rise to the inferno that in the space of a few hours consumed more than half of the shantytown. It is not the first time that flames have engulfed the huts built from plastic and wood, but this time they also killed a 26-year-old Nigerian girl. Her name was Becky Moses, and she had arrived here only a month ago after leaving a SPRAR Project refugee facility in Riace.

“We’ll try to give her a proper burial,” said the mayor of the village next to the Tyrrhenian sea, Mimmo Lucano, present at the scene together with two of Becky’s young friends.

Eight years have now passed since that famous day when immigrants filled the streets of Rosarno, rebelling against the abuses by the corporals. But nothing seems to have changed. Since then, around 2,000 people, mainly from Central Africa, have come to the fields of Gioia Tauro to pick oranges and kiwi for €20 per day. Beside the starvation-level wages, the migrants are forced to live in inhuman conditions. Some sleep in abandoned houses on the plains surrounding Taurianova, a nearby village close to San Ferdinando and Rosarno, while others find refuge in the ghetto or in the new tent city. After a thousand promises were made but never kept, no one seems to want to find real accommodations for the thousands of people who have been housed according to useless “emergency plans.”

Until Saturday, the ghetto in San Ferdinando was a second home for at least a thousand laborers. It was a hellish place, with no drinking water and no plumbing. The electricity supply, obtained thanks to generators, also served to keep the lights on in the bazaar. In short, the slum had become an invisible small village of its own, to which the authorities were indifferent. Today, only a few cabins are left of it. The Civil Defense set up a few tents for those whose homes have been destroyed. “And what are we going to do now?” Ahmed, one of them, asks himself.

Just 500 meters away from the remains of the cabins, there is the new tent city, which houses no more than 500 people. The camp was built in August, and equipped with a video surveillance system. The occupants, after providing identification, can only enter with a special badge. Despite being in operation for only a few months, the camp already has problems: for instance, the food service was never resumed after the association initially responsible for managing the camp was replaced.

“It’s cold here. I can’t sleep at night,” says Ali, who lives here. There is no heating system for the tents, and electrical heaters blow the fuses on the electrical panel. But there is one sole positive note: the school for learning Italian. Thanks to an agreement between SOS Rosarno and the municipality of San Ferdinando, it is also available to migrants who do not reside in the camp.

However, this is obviously not a solution for the housing crisis. In fact, the tent city itself was built as a result of an operational protocol signed by the Prefecture of Reggio Calabria together with the Ministry of the Interior and other associations—a “temporary solution,” as the document says. At the same time, according to an analysis by the Società dei Territorialisti (Territorialist Society), in the Gioia Tauro plain alone there are at least 35,000 empty apartments.

“For years, millions have been spent to build tent cities and then leave them to their fate,” reads a press statement by SOS Rosarno. “However,” they conclude, “the events in Rosarno should have taught us something. How long will we have to wait for the launch of effective and rational projects for the reception of migrants?”

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