Migrant workers gather their belongings before the demolition of their makeshift settlement in Campobello di Mazara. Photograph: Francesco Bellina/Cesura

Foreigners who work long hours for negligible pay in the Sicilian countryside are having their settlements razed, exposing them to even worse treatment

Fonte articolo theguardian – Abdoulie has packed his whole life into a cardboard box. Inside there are a few clothes, a jacket, some photos of his children that he left behind in Gambia, and a pair of muddy shoes. He has placed everything on the saddle of an old, rusty bicycle and is about to leave the camp.

Until yesterday, that same cardboard box had served as the roof of the hut where he has lived for almost a year in the countryside of Campobello di Mazara, a small village nestled in a green plain of olive trees in western Sicily.

Abdoulie is one of about 2,000 migrants working in the large-scale production of extra virgin olive oil. For them, there has never been room in the city. Until last week, 200 African refugees and migrants were living in a camp of wood and cardboard shacks in a makeshift settlement, a few hundred metres from the owners’ land. They were competing for the opportunity to work long hours in the fields.

Today, however, that camp no longer exists. It was demolished by the local authorities, who deemed it too dangerous to live there because of the waste scattered around an area that had no electricity, toilets or showers.

Informal migrant labour camps such as this are becoming a phenomenon according to local rights groups.

According to trade unions and associations, more than a dozen illegal camps have been demolished in Italy over the past three years. In March 2017, the authorities swept away a settlement in Rignano Garganico, the largest migrant labourer camp in Europe, which accommodated 3,000 workers in Puglia last summer. A year earlier, bulldozers destroyed a camp in Nardò, in the Salento region, which housed about 100 labourers. Two months later another informal shantytown, Borreano, in Basilicata, which also housed hundreds of African workers, was demolished.

In Sicily, public opinion about the presence of the camps has turned from frustration to hostility.

Despite the efforts of Don Baldassare Meli, a priest who has repeatedly appealed to people in Campobello to host migrants in the village’s many empty houses, Abdoulie and his companions now sleep rough in the countryside.

“They should have found shelter for these people before destroying their homes,” says Meli. “But nobody agreed to host them. Refugees are already vulnerable to labour exploitation. If we demolish their houses then we will see many falling into more serious abuse, even slavery, because they are at the complete mercy of their employers.”

Abdoulie believes racism is at the heart of the problem. “The truth is that we are black and there isn’t room in their town. They do not want us in their apartments. We were willing to pay the rent. But they do not want us. We are only good for working their lands. Like animals.”

Migrant labour is a booming business in Sicily, not only for farmers but also for the contractors who recruit men and women to work illegally in the fields.

Some Africans who have seen their camps destroyed say they are being paid €2 (£1.76) an hour, €7.50 below the legal minimum wage.

Laws passed last year promised eight-year prison sentences for those recruiting and exploiting migrant workers. But Italian labour unions say up to 300,000 illegal workers continue to generate billions of euros a year in profit for Italy’s agricultural sector.

Migrants help the country’s economy, says Yvan Sagnet, a former Cameroonian field worker and now president of the No Cap association, which fights to improve the rights of migrant workers.

“Demolishing a field means eliminating the effects, not the causes of the exploitation,” says Sagnet. “And the consequences will be worse for the workers. It solves nothing.”

When one settlement is demolished, says Sagnet, another quickly appears. In the meantime, the workers affected become even more susceptible to exploitation.

“They will be willing to work for less,” he says. “A united group, which lives together, is stronger and can better assert its rights. But if that group is broken up, after a demolition, those workers will find themselves alone, and therefore even more vulnerable to exploitation.”

Public opinion about refugee numbers across Italy has turned toxic in the wake of the general election in March, which was punctuated by a surge in support for anti-immigrant parties.

On 3 February, a neo-fascist shot and injured six Africans in the city of Macerata. The same month, rightwing parties made pre-election pledges to expel 600,000 migrants from Italy.

“The demolition of the camp is certainly a consequence of the climate of tension and intolerance that has characterised this campaign,” says Meli. “I do not know where it will end. But these guys need our protection, otherwise they risk being devoured by a system of exploitation that will turn them into slaves.”

In the field in Campobello di Mazara, nothing is left now; only piles of plastic and other trash. Abdoulie has found shelter in an abandoned house in the countryside. Others have moved on, no doubt to set up another camp wherever they can.