MINEO — Dusk sets on this town nestled in the hills of eastern Sicily, home to Europe's largest migrant center. Once used as a base for American soldiers, the center can host up to 4,000 asylum seekers, as Italy continues to bear much of the brunt of the European migrant crisis.

Over the course of an hour, some 100 migrants can be counted streaming back in from the otherwise sleepy town on their bicycles, alone or in groups, arriving after long hours working illegally in nearby orange groves, picking fruit for just 20 euros a day. A local farmer named Paolo waits at the entrance to the center with his pick-up truck, loaded with fresh vegetables for the camp's residents. Some of them stop to give him a high five or tell him a joke. Paolo says he used to come every day, and I would make 100-120 euros selling vegetable. But now, he says, asylum seekers are no longer granted 2.50 euros of daily pocket money. “Now the government only gives them a SIM card and cigarettes,” Paolo says.

These days the migrants hold onto every last euro to buy a bicycle they can ride to work. “Only the ones who've been here for at least nine months and have saved some money selling cigarettes can afford a bicycle,” says Abu Bakar, a migrant from Gambia. “They give us cigarettes even though none of us smoke.”

Gesturing toward his two friends, one from Nigeria, another from Guinea-Bissau, Bakar recalls how he came to Mineo after nearly three months on the road. He'd slept on cardboard boxes with five other people at the train station in the larger Sicilian city of Catania after a year-long journey that took him through Senegal, Mali, Niger, and Libya, before boarding a boat to make the dangerous trip across the Mediterranean.

When he arrived in Catania, exhausted and with nothing but the clothes on his back, Bakar and several other migrants were stopped by the Italian police, who gave them a notice ordering them to leave Italy within a week.

But the notice was in Italian, and after a few days living on the street, Abu Bakar was approached by a woman working for Borderline, an association that helps migrants facing expulsion.

Indefinite exploitation

The Sicilian NGO was founded by several women lawyers and cultural mediators, and partners with the UK-based NGO Oxfam to provide help to migrants reaching Sicily's shores. “We monitor boat landings and follow migrants' asylum requests,” says Germana Graceffo, a lawyer who works for Borderline. “We connect them to basic services like shelter and medical assistance.”

A view of the camp in Mineo — Photo: Ludovica Jona

Thanks to Borderline's appeal against his expulsion order, Abu Bakar returned to the Italian migrant welcome system and received a spot at the camp in Mineo. “If we identify individuals at risk, such as pregnant women, victims of sexual assault, unaccompanied minors, and people with mental disabilities, we refer them to the social services or other associations that can help them,” says Graceffo. “We also monitor the welcome centers, since many of them are isolated and provide little to no services or opportunities for work and integration, leaving migrants to work illegally in farms for years.”

Migrants continue to be exploited and abused for their work in the agricultural industry, even after their asylum requests have been approved. “We know of many cases where young men haven't been paid for their work,” explains Floriana Bucca, an Oxfam employee that helps migrants through the local offices of UILA, the Italian agricultural workers' union. “One case is a man from Burkina Faso I'm helping, he wants to go to the police but he's afraid.”

The recently adopted system of collective mass expulsions from new immigration “hotspots” has worsened the situation for those with no documents and no right to work, leading to more exploitation of migrant workers. The irregular status of migrants makes them vulnerable to blackmail from employers. “Illegal employment of workers for low wages in the black market is common to all agricultural workers, even Italians and Sicilians, but it's worse for foreigners,” says Nino Marino, secretary-general of UILA. “Integration is at the core of the personal, social, and professional lives (of migrants), and respecting their rights represents a social victory for them and for Sicily.”

*Jona works for Oxfam Italia