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Fear and loathing in Lampedusa

Tunisian migrants arrive in Lampedusa.

Photo by noborder network under a CC Licence.

From Mahrane Gharbi’s dilapidated shelter in the Sicilian countryside, the dark blue Mediterranean appears in the distance, beyond fields and greenhouses, separating him from Tunisia, his country. Mahrane has no job, no money, no house and nowhere to go. With hindsight, boarding on a flimsy boat bound for Italy and crossing the sea that stretches in front of him was not such a good idea.

The story of this 24-year-old Tunisian man is one of hope and disillusionment. Mahrane is among the thousands of Tunisians who left their country for Italy after the Jasmine Revolution in January led to the resignation of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, former president of Tunisia. It was the beginning of the Arab Spring.

‘I wanted to see Europe,’ says Mahrane. ‘I’ve always been in Tunisia, all my life. A man in Mahdia, where I come from, bought a boat. He took me and 50 other people to Lampedusa. But I don’t know if I would have come, if I'd known I would have found this.’

Since 1998, the Tunisian and Italian governments have tried to stop people reaching Lampedusa, an island off the coast of Sicily. Yet after the fall of Ben Ali about 10,000 Tunisians entered the island, hoping to start a better life in Europe.

But after they had landed, the Tunisians were not granted refugee protection, nor the status of economic migrants. The Italian government gave them a temporary visa, lasting only six months. If they wanted to renew it and stay in the country, they were told, they had to find a job. Not an easy task in Italy, where unemployment is growing rapidly.

Sent back to Italy

Many tried to reach France, where they had family and friends. Yet the French government refused to recognize their visas and sent them back to Italy, despite the Schengen agreement that guarantees freedom of movement within Europe.

Left with the only option of looking for a job in Italy, after travelling around the country in search for work, many came back to the southernmost tip of Sicily in May. They looked for jobs as pickers in Pachino, an impoverished town surrounded by farms.

Waist-high grass and litter surrounded the house which had no electricity and no water. A dozen people slept in two rooms on worn-out sofas and mattresses

‘I went to Milan, looking for a job and a place to stay,’ says Mahrane. ‘Then to Modena, Parma, Ancona, Rimini, Pesaro, Pescara, Barletta, Catanzaro, Messina, Catania, and Syracuse. I couldn’t find anything. Then some people told me there was work here in the countryside.’

Many Tunisians arrive in Pachino every summer to harvest melons and watermelons. They gather every day at dawn in front of the Bar Mercato, a café near the food market of the town, hoping to be hired as pickers. Gangmasters, known as caporali or capi, control the labour market. Every morning they hire workers for the local farmers, but they extort a sizable chunk of the labourers’ meagre wage. This year Mahrane and the other Tunisian newcomers joined the local pickers’ ranks. Yet with so many more migrants in town, finding a job became a desperate task.

Living conditions for Tunisian migrants in Pachino are poor.

Photo by Stefano Berra.

‘The capi always say "maybe" when you ask for work,’ says Mahrane. ‘You talk to friends of friends. They always say maybe, but they never give you work. I went to the Bar Mercato every morning and after 20 days I managed to find one day of work picking watermelons. I worked four hours and they paid me €20 ($28).’

With no job and no money, Mahrane was forced to squat in an abandoned house outside Pachino, like most Tunisians. Waist-high grass and litter surrounded the house which had no electricity and no water. A dozen people slept in two rooms on worn-out sofas and mattresses thrown on the floor. Others slept upstairs, where there was a roof but no walls. In another room a camp stove and few pots were used to cook some food whenever one of the inhabitants got a few hours of paid work, enough to buy some pasta and tomato sauce. On a wall the Tunisians had written the words 'La Liberté' – freedom.

‘I don’t know what to do now,’ says Mahrane. ‘I speak to my family sometimes. They tell me to come back to Tunisia. But I have no money.’

'After he finished working he went to his employer and asked for his money. Instead of getting paid he got beaten up. If migrants react, we could have riots here'

The Italian government effectively left Mahrane and the other Tunisians on their own. Without the status of refugees, they had no rights to financial help. With an almost non-existent social housing programme in Pachino, they could not get a house. Only the local charity, Caritas, tried to help, handing out bread, water and cans of tuna every day.

The relationship between the Tunisians and the population of Pachino is tense. Tunisian migrants are often paid below the minimum wage and frequently face ill-treatment by their employers. Giombattista Lombardo, of ANOPAS, a charity in the town, explains what migrant workers are up against.

Victims of violence

‘Recently a North African man came to Pachino,’ he says. ‘He worked for two days, he was told he would get €60-100 ($85-140). After he finished working he went to his employer and asked for his money. Instead of getting paid he got beaten up. He was left in the street badly injured, people were passing by looking at him, even the police passed by. Things like this happen all the time. If migrants react, we could have riots here.’

The lack of work also created tensions within the Tunisian community. Giusi Petralito, from Caritas, recorded a few stabbings among the newcomers. ‘After a while a sense of failure builds up,’ she says. ‘They have no work, but their families back home still expect them to succeed, maybe even to send money home. They feel frustrated, they start to drink and fight.’

The harvest season ended in July. With no more melons to pick, most Tunisians left Pachino, trying their luck in other parts of Sicily, waiting for the grape harvest to start. In August, many went to Scordia and Sciacca, small towns in Sicily renowned for the production of oranges. But now, until the harvest begins, they have no means to earn a living and are still forced to live off what charities can offer them.

Mahrane is disillusioned. When the Jasmine Revolution shook his country he saw the opportunity to move to Europe to build a better future, but now he is scraping out a living by picking fruits and vegetables when he can. He does not want to go back to Tunisia, despite the changes brought on by the revolution.

‘I need a job, and there is still no work there,’ he shrugs. ‘My visa expires in October, but I have to stay in Italy.’


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