Blog post by Gabriel Maggiore, American University’s School of International Service

Over the course of 48 hours this September, 7,000 migrants arrived at the Italian Island of Lampedusa. So far in 2023, 83,000 migrants have crossed the central Mediterranean, compared to 34,000 in this same period last year. Much attention is devoted to those migrants just arriving in Italy, but not enough is paid to the exploitation of documented and undocumented migrants already living and working in Italy. There are more than 400,000 undocumented migrants that work in the Italian agricultural system. Without proper documentation or work contracts, they are vulnerable to exploitation by criminal organizations, and live in squalid conditions on the edge of Italian society. Instead of support, the Italian government has been continually marginalizing these laborers and making driving more migrants to irregular work where they are exploited due to their uncertain legal status in the country. To stem the amount of people forced into irregular work where they are subjected to abuse, Italy must reform its anti-migrant policies that restrict access to legal pathways to residency and work, social inclusion, and state support. These policies have been shown to be ineffective. Action on this is needed now more than ever, as 2023 has seen a renewed surge in migrants crossing into Italy. The Italian government must recognize that the main result of their policies has been to drive people to irregular work, and that it is not a sustainable path to facing the upcoming surge in migrants.

The Italian Caporalato system, sometimes referred to as Agrimafia, is the practice of illegal intermediation between farmers and workers. It is estimated that around 25% of Italian agrobusinesses use this system. Caporales charge to transport the workers to the fields, where they earn between 1 to 4 euros per hour, working 8-to-14-hour days. Breaks are nonexistent or short and some caporales charge the workers for food or water, which they are obliged to take at the remote locations where the fields are located. Workers are exposed to unsafe pesticides and harsh summer and winter conditions. Workers then return to informal settlements, where there is no sanitation, water, or other necessities to live. Intimidation and violence are also common. Caporales keep the identity and residency documents of their workers to blackmail them into accepting low wages and poor conditions, because if they are caught without their papers they can be arrested and deported. Both psychological and physical violence are commonplace, women are especially vulnerable to sexual violence. These rampant abuses are possible because the workers are not afforded the social and legal protections offered to all other Italian citizens. Workers are afraid to report the abuses for free of being targeted by increasingly hostile Italian policies on migrants.

Successive governments in Italy have taken a hardline stance on migrants and migrant rights. This has resulted in increasingly repressive policies that force undocumented workers into irregular work structures like the Caporalato agricultural system. Matteo Salvini, who was the Deputy Minister and Minister of the Interior from 2018-2019, stated “la pacchia é finite”, meaning “the free ride is over”. This is in reference to aid that is given to migrants, supposedly at the expense of the Italian people. His policies reflected this outlook with the 2018 “Salvini Decrees”. These measures abolished the “humanitarian protection” status afforded to some migrants. This status protected people who were not eligible for refugee status but could not be removed from the country because of “objective and serious personal situations” and was a common protection for asylum seekers. However, the main result of the Salvini Decree was an increase in irregular work, as people were unable to attain work permits and had little or no action to state support. The latest Cutro Decree, passed in February of 2023, and the declaration of a State of Emergency in April. The Cutro Decree further narrows who is eligible for special protection status, the successor of humanitarian protection after the Salvini Decrees, and excludes asylum seekers from the SAI reception system, placing them instead in Extraordinary Reception Centers, which “meet only the most basic standards for reception” due to budget cuts. According to a study by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, the Cutro Decree will most likely lead to an increase in migrants seeking irregular work and a possible increase in exploitation by criminal organizations among other adverse effects. The Human Rights Watch has also warned that “The new law will have a devastating impact on migrants’ rights, including their ability to seek protection, access fair asylum procedures, and enjoy freedom of movement”.

With the current trends in migration, Italy will continue to see immense numbers of migrants. Implementing policies that limit migrants’ access to social inclusion, State support, and legal pathways to residency and work, like the Salvini and Cutro Decrees, have been shown to be ineffective, and only push migrants without social protections to abusive irregular work environments that routinely violate their human rights. The State should instead provide funding to programs like the SAI (Sistema di Accoglienza e Integrazione), which decentralizes reception activities so local networks and NGOs can chose what reception activities best suit them. Migrants trapped in the Caporalato system have their human rights violated everyday through inhumane working conditions, living conditions, and psychological and physical abuse. To stop driving people into this system, the Italian government must reform its anti-migrant policies.

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