Migrants and asylum-seekers failed by Italy's integration system often end up in places like Castel Volturno. There they risk being exploited, but they also find solidarity, reports Michele Bertelli.
The fading sun at dusk casts long shadows over the unpaved roads and crumbling walls of Destra Volturno, a borough in the southern Italian town of Castel Volturno. From a kitchen over the terrace of a dusty mansion, the smell of peanuts and stew saturates the wide garden below. All at once 10 men rush in. After a long day of work at the harvest, it's dinnertime.
"In Castel Volturno, you earn one euro for every basket that you fill up with tomatoes," says Cherno, 24. He has just climbed to the rooftop of the detached house that he shares with 10 fellow Gambians.
Despite living on the coast, he rarely has a chance to enjoy the seaside panorama: The men all wake up at sunrise, so they will be first to arrive at the "kalifoo grounds," the traffic roundabouts along the nearby Via Domiziana. There, illegal recruiters look for day laborers for the surrounding fields and construction sites.
After five years in Italy, a local farmer finally hired Cherno — until December — for a salary of €25 ($29) per day. In this wasteland, a temporary contract represents a luxury. "Here, you find only informal and petty jobs," he says.
For many African migrants, Castel Volturno means a safe harbor where they can avoid police controls and find solidarity among their compatriots. People here come from 84 different countries; Nigeria and Ghana are the most represented nations.
According to the civil registry, around 26,300 inhabitants live legally in Castel Volturno, 4,300 of whom are foreigners. But according to Mayor Dimitri Russo, the actual population is almost double that, with 15,000 unregistered migrants.
"My city has become a dumping ground for any social disease, attracting any sort of misfit and poor sod from Africa as well as from the outskirts of Naples," he says.
'Like in Africa'
Israel, 29, comes from Edo state in Nigeria. "I have what it takes to be a man, but I am still begging," he says. His tall, fit body makes for a stark contrast to the decrepit walls of his house. Like many refugees who arrived from Libya in 2011, Israel wandered from place to place in search of a stable occupation. He worked for a time in a fruit-packing company in Germany. But then his permit expired, so he had to go back to Italy and get a renewal.
He was living on charity in Naples when an acquaintance told him about Castel Volturno. "A fellow black man said it's like Africa. So I came here to relax, as the spending is reduced," Israel says. His room costs roughly €100 per month, while entire villas are available for about €200 to €400.
Nobody would have ever imagined such a future for this town. During the 1960s, middle-class Neapolitans flooded these shores. Irregular construction took off, covering the whole 27 kilometers (17 miles) of coast with villas and detached houses.
But the lack of urban planning showed its limits; buildings started falling apart.
After the earthquake
Then, in 1980, an earthquake struck the nearby region of Irpinia. When the government took control of some of the apartments to relocate those made homeless, it dealt Castel Volturno a crippling blow. Italian homeowners began leaving their mansions, which they then rented out for next to nothing.
The local economy collapsed. With cheap accommodation and work in the tomato fields abounding, African migrants gravitated to the town.
Nowadays places like Destra Volturno or Pescopagano look like a dystopian vision of a traditional holiday neighborhood, with roads that have grown uneven as the sewage network has deteriorated.
Dimitri Russo was elected in 2014 over a wave of indignation after the government dissolved the previous council for its ties to local mafias. This territory has always proved fertile for the expansion of criminal organizations from the cities of Naples and Caserta, both less than an hour's drive away. And that came with a price for the migrant community.
On September 18, 2008, a mafia commando affiliated with the powerful Casalesi clan shot six African migrants dead in a tailor's shop. The killers picked the victims randomly, as they just wanted to assert their control over the territory. After the police arrested the heads of the cartel, Nigerian gangs took over, turning some buildings and villas in the outskirts of town into hubs for drug dealing and prostitution.
Prostitution or nothing
Mayor Russo is frustrated by the few achievements of his administration: "When it comes to integration, schools are essential," he says, "but I don't even have the money to run the school bus."
Every year he closes the budget with a deficit of €4 million to €5 million. Crumbling buildings are partially exempt from property taxes, and the low income of many residents also contributes to the shortfall.
Read more: Migrants put mobsters behind bars in Palermo
Russo estimates that about 70 percent of Castel Volturno's inhabitants pay no tax at all. But services drive up public expenditures: "Who pays for the waste collection of these 15,000 invisible dwellers if not the town hall?" he says.
In July he took the case to the European Commission's Department for Migration and Home Affairs. "If a town hosts a landfill, it receives some reimbursement," Russo says. "I ask for funding too, since I am in charge of a social dump."
Better for some
While many migrants find shelter in this town, it has become a prison for others.
Grace*, 42, worked as a prostitute for two years. She moved to Castel Volturno to change her life but found no other opportunity.
"I cannot do hustling anymore because of my condition," she says, showing a long scar that runs across her pelvis. A month ago surgeons removed fibroids from her uterus and prohibited her from any sexual activity.
"Since I came here only suffering, suffering, suffering," she mutters.
Now Grace wants to find a way to get money to return to Nigeria and start a business there. She has no permit to remain in Italy: The nuances of seeking asylum appear too complicated for somebody who has never finished secondary school, so she has never applied to stay.
With no understanding of Italian, finding any other work seems highly unlikely.
She has pinned her hopes on traveling to France or Germany, where, she was told, she might find assistance. But for now, Grace remains stuck in Castel Volturno.
*Name changed to protect her identity.