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Refugees-turned-farmers in Italy go organic

Ylenia Gostoli Oleggio
August 2, 2018

In far-right League-dominated territory in northern Italy, a veteran farmer and a number of African youths have set up their own organic farm amid a crackdown on asylum-seekers. Ylenia Gostoli reports from Oleggio.

Migrants working on a farm in Italy
Image: DW/Ylenia Gostoli

Every morning Dembo Cisse, a sturdily built 21-year-old from Guinea, waits for the car to pick him up. He and two others, who live together in an apartment that belongs to Italy's privatized migrant reception system, get in the vehicle. The old family car then heads from Oleggio, a small town in the northern Italian region of Piedmont, to an agricultural field nearby.

But Dembo and his companions are not off to work in the food supply chain dominated by large-scale distributors who require ever lower prices and therefore cheap labor — which many of their fellow Africans provide for lack of better options.

Read moreItaly tells refugees: Don't risk the journey

The car's driver is Raffaele D'Acunto, known as Lello, the area's first organic farmer, now retired, who decided to set up a small-scale agricultural company to make organic produce and sell it on the local market. Lello, Dembo and four others from Mali, Senegal and Nigeria — the youngest of whom is just 19 — are to become equal partners in the budding business they have aptly named Zappa Arcobaleno, Italian for Rainbow Hoe. The company is currently caught up in the bureaucratic process awaiting official registration.

"No one has taken care of this land for the past 40 years," Dembo told DW as he got his gloves and a bucket ready, which he will use to shake off parasites that have found a home among the potatoes he planted here three months ago.

"When we started, it was full of stones here; it was a very difficult land [to cultivate]," he explained.

The group began rehabilitating part of this abandoned plot three months ago after contacting its original owners, who had no objections. Potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes and squash are among the crops now growing here. The team also reached a deal with the local migrant reception center where some of the youths live to develop their own vegetable garden.

Farm owner and African refugees sitting in a field
Lello (second left) says he's been able to pass on his expertise and passion for farmingImage: DW/Ylenia Gostoli

"Here we can be our own bosses. What we put in is what we earn," said Dembo in good Italian. He's been in the country for 18 months, mostly spent waiting for an interview with the asylum commission, and now, waiting for an answer on his application.

 A life in limbo

The wait can be long. In the EU as a whole at the end of May 2018, more than half of asylum applicants had been waiting for a decision for longer than six months. In Italy, it's not uncommon to hear of people staying in the privately run, but government-funded, reception centers for more than two years.

The luckiest among them find poorly paid work on the black market, which is still a step up from the €2.50 ($2.93) a day the state provides. Privately run reception centers, known as CAS, on the other hand, receive up to €35 a day for each asylum-seeker — money that is supposed to go towards accommodation and integration programs, including language classes.

While some do provide those services, the system is chaotic and open to well-documented abuse, including mafia infiltration.

Read moreMigrants put mafia mobsters behind bars in Palermo

For refugees and migrants caught up in the cogs, it just means living in limbo.

"It's not for me to say if I want to continue this work. It depends where I'm allowed to live in the future. I don't know what will happen tomorrow," said Dembo, who has been studying Italian and took part in a professional gardening and farming course, where he met Lello, who was his teacher.

Together with a 77 percent drop in arrivals via the central Mediterranean route, the number of asylum applications in Italy dropped by 50 percent in the first quarter of 2018 compared with the previous year. An average of 60 percent of applications are rejected.

Italy tends to more commonly grant "humanitarian protection," which comes with a two-year residency permit and is designed to help those who haven't met the requirements for refugee status or subsidiary protection.

Cracking down on asylum applications

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini
Interior Minister Matteo Salvini is cracking down on asylum-seekers and refugees in ItalyImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Solaro

In an official letter earlier this month, Italy's far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, asked local asylum commissions tasked with examining applications to limit the number of humanitarian permits issued, sparking concern among human rights groups that forcing an administrative body to adhere to political directives will lead to unjust decisions and further administrative chaos.

"At the national level, we've seen that [commissions] are generally becoming tougher, with few exceptions," Donatella Bava, a lawyer in the Turin area and member of the Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration, told DW. "We've seen a decline in good practice. We have cases where residency permits were revoked even with an appeal pending."

Campaigning (and now governing with the Five Star Movement) on an anti-migrant platform, Salvini's League party took home nearly 30 percent of the vote in Oleggio, more than any other single party. Since the election in March, the League's popularity has been rising across Italy.

Various myths have been making the rounds — most commonly that asylum-seekers pocket €35 a day from the state. As a result migrants are often viewed with suspicion by the local population.

Read moreOpinion: Italy's populists need more than rhetoric to govern

"Sometimes when you stop someone on the street to ask for information, they turn away," Dembo said. "They might think we are asking for money, like our brothers who do that in front of the supermarket, and don't answer."

An African refugee working in a vegetable patch
Mumin and his fellow asylum-seekers say that despite the anti-migrant rhetoric, they're determined to succeedImage: DW/Ylenia Gostoli

But at the farm, Dembo, Lello and the others each have their own reasons to continue with their work. In recent weeks, they have begun selling their products directly to consumers as they continue their efforts to turn their business into a fully operating company.

For Lello, a former chemical engineer who himself arrived in the area as a migrant from the southern city of Salerno to work in a factory more than 30 years ago, it is a way to pass on his knowledge and passion.

"Meeting the boys made me realize the value of certain things that I wasn't able to do with my own children," Lello told DW. "Farming needs some sacrifices: on working hours, holidays, on good and bad weather. But I am an optimist and I tell them: 'We've nothing to lose.'"

Ethiopian migrant in Italy