Joy, a young Nigerian woman, was standing in the street outside the sprawling, overcrowded Cara di Mineo reception centre for asylum seekers in central Sicily, waiting for someone to pick her up when I met her. It was late summer 2016, and the weather was still hot. She said she was 18, but looked much younger. She was wearing a faded denim jacket over a crisp white T-shirt and tight jeans, and six or seven strings of colourful beads were wrapped around her neck. A gold chain hung from her left wrist, a gift from her mother.
As we spoke, a dark car came into view and she took a couple of steps away from me to make sure whoever was driving saw her, and saw that she was alone. There were a handful of other migrants loitering along the road. The approaching car didn’t slow down, so Joy came back over to me and carried on our conversation.
The oldest of six children, Joy (not her real name) told me she had left her family in a small village in Edo state in Nigeria at the age of 15, and gone to work for a wealthy woman who owned a beauty salon in Benin City. She had since come to suspect that her parents had sold her to raise money for their younger children. “They probably had no choice,” she said as she looked down the road toward the thick citrus groves that hid the coming traffic.
There were six other girls who worked for the woman, whom Joy said they called their maman, meaning “mother”. When Joy turned 16, she went through a ceremony that bound her to the maman by a curse: if she disobeyed the maman, her family would die. A few weeks later, she was told she was moving to Italy, where she would work for her maman’s sister. She believed she would be working in a hair salon. She was given €45 (£40) and a phone number to call once she got to Italy – but no name, no address, and no documents.
Joy’s new life would turn out to be nothing like what she had expected. Instead of working for a hairdresser, she fell into the trap set by traffickers who lure women into slavery and prostitution. More than 80% of women brought to Europe from Nigeria are unknowingly “sponsored” by sex traffickers who have paid for their journey, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The rest will have paid the smugglers to get them to Europe, but once they get there, will be unlikely to escape the sex-trafficking rings.
The new arrivals were divided into groups and put on buses. Joy’s bus headed to the Cara di Mineo migrant camp, one of the biggest in Europe. In this context, Cara stands for centro di accoglienza per richiedenti asilo, or asylum seekers reception centre; cara also means “dear” in Italian, but Mineo is not a place that makes people who have risked everything for a new chance at life feel cherished. About 70km from the coast in central Sicily, it is a hellish place where the vast majority of African migrants who arrive by sea start their lengthy journey to asylum. But often, before they can obtain legal status, they are claimed by the criminal underworld.
The site was built as luxury housing for US military personnel, but it is ill-equipped to deal with the number of migrants washing up on the shores of Sicily. (At last count, it housed 4,000 people.) Accommodation blocks are often so overcrowded that people have to sleep on the floor or in tents. The buildings are overrun by cockroaches and rats that feed off festering piles of garbage, while mangy, flea-infested dogs duck in and out of holes in the razor-wire fence. Mount Etna, and its steady stream of smoke, is clearly visible in the distance.
The centre has become a lawless place where people are easy prey for criminal gangs. The state funds these centres by giving them a sum of money for each asylum seeker, but many of them cut corners on food and other amenities, and pocket the profits. Low-level members of Italy’s various mafia organisations and Nigerian gangs come to the centre to recruit drug mules and petty criminals among the bored, idle men who have given up on the life they dreamed of when they crossed the sea.
Cara di Mineo, like the Sant’Anna asylum centre in Isola di Capo Rizzuto in Calabria, and others on the mainland, has also become a hunting ground for traffickers. Posing as asylum seekers, traffickers lure women out of the centre on the pretext of shopping trips or other excursions, and deliver them to the Nigerian women who control forced prostitution rings. They are then forced into sex work under the threat of violence, most of them – like Joy – terrorised by a curse that binds them into slavery. Several centres have become the subject of criminal investigations, revealing corruption at local and state level, and infiltration by powerful crime syndicates. Always quick to exploit new opportunities, the mafia is making vast profits off the backs of migrants.
Once Joy was taken off the bus in the reception centre with the other passengers, she was given a bed in a villa with 10 Nigerian women around her age. Most of them had come to Italy to work in hair salons, and all had contact numbers to call. A Catholic charity had given Italian phone cards to all those who had been rescued, which they could use to call home. Joy still had her jacket with the phone number sewn inside. The woman who answered the phone told her to apply for political asylum using a fake name and birthdate, and never to give the phone number she had just called to anyone.
She applied for asylum the morning after she arrived, using her own birth date and the name of her younger sister. Once migrants apply for asylum, they can come and go from the centre at designated times, while they wait for word about their application, which can take months. After three days, a man Joy didn’t recognise came to find her in the camp and told her she was to wait at a roundabout down the road from the entrance every morning, and eventually someone would come for her. Joy asked how she would know who was picking her up.
“You will know,” the man told her. “Just get into the car when it stops.”
It was at that roundabout that I met Joy. When I asked her what she thought would happen when she was picked up, she said she was sure she would be taken to a beauty salon owned by her maman’s sister, where she would be given a job as a hair braider, as she had been in Benin City. She said she might have to start by cleaning floors, but that she would work her way up. I asked her if she knew that a lot of girls like her ended up as sex workers. She said she had heard about Nigerian women who ended up as prostitutes after coming to Italy, and that she would “never do that”, no matter how desperate she got.
Eventually, she had to go back inside the compound, or risk missing her evening meal. Once again, her ride had not come. I wished her good luck and gave her my phone number, which she saved in her phone before walking through the sliding metal gate back inside the centre. Later I would regret not trying to warn her in a more concrete way. At the time, she was just one of so many young women I saw sliding into the abyss.
In 2012, an investigation was opened into forced prostitution at Cara di Mineo, after doctors at the centre received a series of requests for abortions. In three months, the centre’s doctors performed 32 abortions on migrants – an increase of more than 200% on the year before. The authorities concluded that this was due to an increase in prostitution, along with a lack of birth control options. Because of the church’s influence over migrant care, contraception was not being distributed, and few migrants have the means to source their own. Some aid groups have since tried handing out condoms.
In December 2016, four Nigerian asylum seekers were arrested in Cara di Mineo, accused of drugging and raping a female resident. The woman had been told, like Joy, to wait on the street for someone to pick her up. Realising she was being put to work as a prostitute, she had refused to leave the camp. The men raped her as a warning – a typical punishment in sex trafficking. The theory is that if a woman realises that the penalty for refusing to prostitute herself is gang rape, she will likely agree that roadside sex is a better alternative. It is rare to meet a trafficked woman who has not been faced with this choice.
After the incident, Francesco Verzera, a prosecutor with jurisdiction over Cara di Mineo, appealed to the authorities to close down the camp, stating that overcrowding and lack of supervision is creating a dangerous criminal environment. “This sort of violence will become the norm if you continue to operate a community-based asylum centre with nearly 4,000 people,” he warned. “The crimes continue to get more violent, and the growing disregard for life is a clear sign of a deteriorating situation.”
The complex that houses Cara di Mineo was built in 2005 by the Pizzarotti Company of Parma, which is still the primary contractor for US defence logistics in Italy. It was built for officers stationed at the Sigonella naval air base about 40km away. The boulevards and tree-lined streets of the compound were meant to replicate a US suburb, complete with a recreation centre, supermarket, American-style steakhouse and a coffee and pastry shop. There was a baseball diamond and American football field, along with a non-denominational house of worship that doubled as a cinema. More than 400 villas were built to accommodate the standard family of five.
In 2011, the US navy gave up its $8.5m (£6m) annual lease and returned the property to Pizzarotti. The same year, during the height of the Arab spring, Silvio Berlusconi’s government decided to lease the complex as an asylum “hot spot”, for processing the growing number of asylum seekers coming to Italy. At that time, the complex was completely locked down, and the mostly Tunisian and Moroccan migrants were held until they were repatriated. Now the people inside are called “guests” and are free to come and go once they have applied for asylum.
Ghosts of the centre’s former life remain. The playground equipment scattered throughout the compound is rusty and in disrepair, now mostly used by men in their 20s who sit on the swings and lie on the slides, whiling away the long hours. The bar is now the medical centre, and the restaurant a canteen where migrants pick up rations of rice and bananas. The recreation room is now a makeshift school, and offices have become dormitories.
Inhabitants dry their laundry next to signs protesting against the Italian government, condemning the bad food and the time it takes to process asylum requests. The compound is guarded by military police who check the asylum seekers in and out, and keep out anyone who isn’t registered. The incentive to return each night runs beyond food and shelter. They come back for the promise of documents that will allow free movement through Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone, and the right to work. Still, dozens of people disappear each month, quickly replaced by new arrivals from Sicily’s ports.
The conditions are deplorable. Most of the villas house 15 to 20 people, sleeping in bunk beds or on mattresses on floors. The villas are falling apart, and the migrants are left to do what they can to take care of maintenance with scant tools. The stench of sewage permeates the grounds, attracting rodents and insects. There is no cleaning service other than in the administrative and kitchen areas. Some of the villas are burnt out, and others are missing windows or doors. After the Americans left, Pizzarotti removed many of the amentities – from washing machines and air-conditioning units to ceiling fans and bathtubs – leaving exposed wires and holes in the walls.
Most of the residents are divided by ethnic or religious background, which has done nothing to reduce tensions and fighting. Every year at Cara di Mineo, on average, 10 migrants die while waiting for their asylum requests to be heard, killed in fights or dying from untreated medical conditions, according to Amnesty International and other aid groups that operate in the centre.
The camp’s director, Sebastiano Maccarrone, admitted in a series of media interviews in early 2016 that it was virtually impossible to protect the inhabitants. “It’s like a small city,” he said. “The big crimes get reported, but the smaller ones are usually handled among the residents.”
Verzera’s investigation into criminal activity at the centre turned up inconsistencies in the record-keeping of who was living there. Many of the migrants on the official roster had long since disappeared, even though the centre, under the direction of Maccarrone, was still reimbursed €35 (£31) a day for them. By law, each migrant awaiting asylum is given an electronic card to check in and out of the centre when making outings. If they don’t check back in after three days, they are supposed to be taken off the roster, and that information sent to Rome so the reimbursement will be stopped. But Verzera says he found that migrants who had been gone for months were kept on the list for financial support. The centre was, on paper, far over capacity, and received extra funds to help with the overload when, in reality, they were taking care of far fewer people than the documents stated.
In 2016, Maccarrone, who previously ran the migrant reception centre on the island of Lampedusa, came under criminal investigation for corruption at Cara di Mineo. He was accused of collusion with the mafia, and of using funds intended for the care of migrants and refugees for personal gain. The charges against him have since been reduced to aggravated fraud and corruption. He maintains he is innocent, and is working as a volunteer at one of the smaller migrant centres in Catania while he awaits trial.
Last year, Catania’s chief prosecutor, Carmelo Zuccaro, tried to make it illegal for NGO charity ships to rescue migrants at sea and bring them to Italian shores. In March 2017, in an interview with the rightwing newspaper Il Giornale, he revealed that the state had started investigations into prisons and refugee camps where extremists were recruiting migrants awaiting word on their asylum requests. “We have received very specific reports of recruitment activities and radicalisation,” he told the paper. “There are radicalised individuals who attract foreigners in order to incite them to fundamentalism.”
The alarm about radicalisation overshadowed the fact that criminal groups are recruiting migrants from the camps for forced or low-paid labour. At harvest times, men leave Cara di Mineo in the early morning and gather along a triangle of dirt off the state highway. Local farmers come in pick-up trucks, looking for i neri (“the blacks”), choosing the biggest and strongest for casual labour, harvesting tomatoes and citrus fruits. The farmers call them ragazzo or “boy”, demanding they turn around or show them how straight their backs are. It is a degrading display, made worse by the fact that they are paid a mere fraction of what Italians would be paid for the same work. Their wages are part of the illicit economy that makes up around 20% of Italy’s overall GDP.
When asylum requests are rejected, applicants have one chance to appeal. If they fail, they are given a slip of paper that says they have five days to leave the country, but no means to do so. Torn-up shreds of those papers are a common sight in the ditches beside the road near the centre. Those turned down are easy bait for criminal gangs working inside the camps, who get paid for providing mafia groups with illegal cheap labour, running drugs and arms or working in the many industries those groups have infiltrated.
In 2014, an investigation known as “Mafia Capitale” found that a criminal group had been running Rome’s municipal government for years. The group, which prosecutors defined as a mafia-style association, had siphoned off millions of euros intended to fund public services. The group had also infiltrated asylum centres across the country, buying and selling names and details of migrants who had long disappeared, in order to keep the per-person state funding coming.
During the investigation, one of the alleged bosses of the group, Salvatore Buzzi, was caught on a wiretap bragging about how much money he made off the backs of asylum seekers. “Do you have any idea how much I earn on immigrants?” he was heard telling an associate. “They’re more profitable than drugs.” Buzzi and his associates were sentenced to decades in prison after a trial that ended in 2017, although their sentences were reduced on appeal. Another appeal is under way.
In 2017, anti-mafia police arrested 68 people, including the local parish priest, in the Calabrian town of Isola di Capo Rizzuto, where one of the country’s largest migrant and refugee reception centres has been in operation for more than a decade. Investigators say the criminals stole tens of millions of euros in public funds intended for asylum seekers to live on while their applications were heard. Gen Giuseppe Governale, chief of the anti-mafia forces, said the centre was a lucrative source of funds for the Calabrian mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta. Prosecutor Nicola Gratteri said detectives had filmed appalling conditions inside the centre. “There was never enough food, and we managed to film the food that was on offer,” he said. “It was the kind of food we usually give to pigs.” The local mafia had set up shell companies that were being paid to provide services including feeding the migrants. (The investigation is ongoing, and no trial date has been set. The priest has denied the charges and claims he has always fought against the mafia.)