Interview with Mario Morcone, director of the Italian Refugee Council (CIR), former chief of staff of Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti (2017-18) and International Cooperation and Integration Minister Andrea Riccardi (2011-13).
CIR is an independent humanitarian NGO born in 1990 that operates at national, European and North African level to defend the rights of refugees and asylum seekers.
1. Are we underestimating the relationship between food and migration? What can you tell us about the Italian case?
In general terms I believe that those departing from complex and remote regions such as Central Africa and the Horn of Africa or passing through extremely dangerous countries like Niger and Libya are motivated by despair and the certainty of not having a future at home.
Against this background, I’d like to say something about Italy’s migration policies. Nowadays the most important thing is the regularization of illegal migrants residing in our Country with uncertain future. Establishing normative tools such as residence permits, which can enable working and living legally here, can have beneficial consequences.
Firstly, a bunch of people would not be forced to live on the street anymore. Moreover, less and less people would consider working for the organized crime as the only way to make a decent living. In fact, to regularize this vulnerable workforce means stopping exploitation.
I’m saying this because the phenomenon concerns sensitive areas of the Italian economy, such as elderly care. But it becomes glaring in agriculture, that employs almost half a million migrant workers. Most of them don’t have a regular contract and are paid on a daily basis. An illegal phenomenon, which has become the norm.
Picking olives, tomatoes or oranges, migrants can work more than ten hours per day in the burning sun of Southern Italy. During non-harvest period, they receive no more than three euros per hour whereas the minimum wage in agriculture is 7.13 euros according to the national collective agreement. Therefore, they are forced to live in derelict farmhouses, sheds or abandoned buildings lacking basic facilities like water and electricity.
The exploitation of migrants’ work is tightly intertwined with “caporalato”, a system based on the mediation of ringleaders (so called “caporali” in Italian). When local farmers need to find cheap, readily available hand-pickers, rather than employing them directly, they largely turn to caporali.
These sort of middlemen take a share of the workers' wages and often charge them for transport to the fields, as well as food and water. Italy would not number among the main exporters of vegetable and fruits in the European Union and beyond without migrants’ contribution. Still, their work is ignored and consumers buying Italian products know nothing about the suffering hidden behind their shopping.
As a matter of fact, agriculture is more and more dependent on this kind of exploitation. Since we refuse to acknowledge this state of affairs, we just keep saying that the solution is to seal our external borders.
2. We often hear the slogan: “Let’s help them in their own countries”. Can this approach help solve a complex phenomenon such as migration?
No, of course it is not a credible solution. Migration is a structural phenomenon which cannot be solved permanently. This does not mean that European presence in North and Central Africa is senseless.
On the contrary, European aid is fundamental to stabilize local governments and improve living conditions. Western initiatives also play an important role whilst laying the foundation for economic development and expanding the market for European products at once.
As to middle power states such as Italy is, abroad we can only try to contain the geopolitical interests of greater powers. Still, even though we are not among the protagonists of the so-called new “scramble for Africa” and our investments do not block migrant flows, our presence entitles us to express our vision.
3. Remittances number among the main resources for both migrants abroad and their families back home. What is the current situation as to this issue?
Remittances lie at the heart of migration and keep alive the economic link between diaspora and countries of origin. It is our moral duty to foster them in any viable way.
Obviously, this cannot be done at the expense of transparency and legality. Illegal transfers related to money laundering and organized crime cannot be tolerated.
Though, any barrier to remittances is a moral crime against those who sacrifice themselves far from home to give their families a better future.
4. Mr Morcone, you are the current director of CIR. How was your organization involved in the so-called migrant crisis?
CIR has been a main player in Libya since 2009. We decided to keep working in the Country even after Gheddafi’s fall in 2011 and then during the harshest years of the ensuing civil war.
Though, our action in North Africa has become more limited over time. We do not have any project in Tunisia at the moment whereas the purpose of our projects in Libya has changed significantly.
There, we are currently supporting local population as a whole rather than concentrating our efforts only on refugees. More and more Libyans have been experiencing a dramatic livelihood deterioration in terms of food and water access, electricity supply, freedom of movement.
CIR overcomes the short-sighted representation according to which refugees are good and Libyans are bad. Such a dichotomy is nothing but a rhetorical choice.
5. European and Italian agriculture relies largely on migrants. How would you describe this relationship?
When we talk about underqualified jobs, migrants are the backbone of a variety of economic sectors such as heavy industry or building.
Still, agriculture is the sector where rights are denied most frequently. If you do not possess a European passport, you belong to the wretched of the Earth and can be victim of cruel injustices.
In Italy, Castel Volturno can be quoted as a blatant example of this perverse mechanism. Located about 35 kilometres (22 mi) north-west of Naples, this town is where a tangled business involving organized crime, migrants and agriculture takes place.
Migrants can be found among both exploited workers and exploiters. The latter usually strike a deal with local organized crime to take possession of their fellow citizens’ life. A mechanism that no Italian government has been able to solve yet.
6. How can we break the negative link between food and migrations?
In the past so many beautiful speeches have been made that have remained pure conferences’ dialectic. We talked about literacy, job training, fixed term but renewable contracts. I know situations in Piedmont and Veneto where there are people who want but cannot work.
That is why I insist so much that opening our minds to the possibility of bringing these people to legality with fixed term contracts is key to deflate the problem and allow moral ownership to tackle exploitation.
But if you do the opposite and condemn them to marginality, closing reception centres or cancelling humanitarian permits, migrants become more and more marginal and felt abandoned. Without having real alternatives. Because repatriations do not work and will never work: you can reach a maximum of 6-7 thousands people a year, which is nothing compared to latest trends.
These (non-)policies become understandable only from a certain point of view: the problem must remain such and politics wants it to remain so. This embitters deeply, because it happens on people’s skin…