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Italy's migrants teach themselves to stand up for themselves

Migrants and refugees living in the region around Caserta are vulnerable to being exploited, including by the mafia. But they’re growing increasingly aware of their rights and their power to help each other fight for fair treatment.

Salvatore Esposito/Pacific Press/Newscom
Marchers carry candles during a peace rally in Caserta, Italy, in December.

It used to be that when a migrant here was the victim in a car accident – a fender bender or such – the local police would still end up blaming them for the collision.

But now when the staff at the Ex Canapificio social center in Caserta is called to deal with this sort of situation, the activists know it’s usually a sign migrants are implementing the lessons they’ve been taught to protect themselves. In this scenario: Record the scene with their phones.

“I’ve been teaching them to stand for their rights and told them to keep evidence when they interact with the authorities. The police think migrants are stupid. But when they’re looking after themselves, they don’t seem so stupid – that makes officers nervous,” says Malik Donkor, a Ghanaian migrant working at the center, with a triumphant grin.

For more than a decade, the Refugees and Asylum Seekers Movement in Caserta (MMRC) has been helping migrants stand up to exploitative employers and appeal effectively for documents that allow them to find legal jobs and houses. Located in southern Italy, the experimental effort is run by Italian activists and migrant workers to build migrants' awareness of their rights and their power to help each other fight for fair treatment.

Mr. Donkor has been both recipient and provider of aid. After leaving Ghana in 2008, he worked in agriculture around Italy for little money, finding himself in vulnerable situations involving drinking and fighting. He ended up in a deportation camp. Having heard about a group that helped migrants near Naples, Donkor managed to escape and sought help with the MMRC.

After obtaining his residence permit with the help of the group, Donkor started volunteering in the social center and eventually landed a staff job as a cultural mediator for the MMRC’s SPRAR project, a government-funded initiative to help asylum seekers settle in Italy.

Now Donkor is part of a structure of more than 6,000 migrants – between staffers and volunteers – fighting against labor exploitation and human rights violations in Italy, where sympathy for migrants is wearing thin. While the number of migrants arriving has dropped significantly in recent months, Italians struggle to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of migrants who have entered in the past 20 years. And the far right has taken advantage of increasing frustration around migration. With the general election coming up in March, anti-migrant rhetoric has soared.

Migrants and Italians working together

Caserta, which lies in the mountainous Campania region about 100 miles southeast of Rome, is home to about 900,000 people, including one of the biggest African communities in Italy. An estimated 5,000 to 6,000 undocumented migrants live there.

Some 300 Italians work and volunteer with the MMRC, which has been growing since the first protests were staged in the early 2000s. They hope, by being intermediaries, that they can win official support for migrants' legalization.

“We filed reports telling the migrants’ stories to the local authorities and we started organizing protests to show everyone how their illegal situation affected their everyday lives. We then asked the local authorities to give these people another chance, arguing case by case with loopholes in the Italian law. And then we told them, ‘If you give them documents, we can give them the tools to integrate into this country.’ They listened to us, re-opened these people’s files, and started issuing residence licenses,” says Maria Rita Cardillo, an Italian activist.

The MMRC believes their approach can also help authorities deal with a more longstanding problem: the mafia. The Camorra – the mafia network based in the Campania region – has been able to exploit migrants by offering to pay desperate job-seekers for criminal work. By empowering migrants to earn their way legally, activists say, authorities can weaken Camorra’s control in the region.

“If you’re undocumented and you want to find a way to survive, it’s very simple to follow someone that will give you money in an easy way.... Without documents, you’re invisible and an easier target. We discovered that migrants listened when we told them there were other ways of living here,” says Ms. Cardillo.

Still, not all migrants work effectively with MMRC.

“We know some people are involved in drug trafficking. I don’t call the police, but I let the migrants know that if they run into trouble we’ll stop helping them. I don’t open the door when they come, and I tell them, ‘Maybe these troubles will allow you to see the right path now,’” Donkor says.

Lead by example

Mamadou Kouassi worked many days in tobacco and tomato fields in the Campania region after leaving Ivory Coast in 2006, where he was a student with hopes of becoming a language teacher. In Italy, there was little he could do against the employers who didn’t pay him or abandoned him at the hospital after he got injured on the job.

But that feeling changed when Mr. Kouassi attended his first weekly meeting in Caserta and then decided to join a one-day strike in which migrants refused to work for less than 50 euros per day. The protest demonstrated the migrants' leverage to employers – but as important, it demonstrated that leverage to the migrants, too, Kouassi says.

“It wasn’t easy to take that step. We were very afraid, and for most of us, earning 20 euros [per day] was better than to protest. Some Italians passing by told us it wasn’t easy for them, either. We answered they were right, but that we should fight for our rights,” he says. “It was a good idea after all. That day changed something for most of us – we finally realized we were being exploited.”

Giampaolo Mosca, another Italian activist, insists even though the movement is political, there’s no political party backing it.

“We don’t ask anyone for their ideology. To be part of this movement is a way of life. Migrants come to seek help for their documents but meeting after meeting they become part of a family. They realize that their problem is also someone else's problem. And that’s how the movement grows,” Mr. Mosca says.

Like Donkor, Kouassi got his residence permit and became a mediator with the MMRC. He makes up to 1,000 euros ($1,164) a month, which allows him to rent a house by himself. And he’s partially fulfilling his dream of teaching by visiting local schools to teach Italian children French and English.

But these days, he says, he’s focusing on a larger goal.

“I want to keep fighting for equality. It’s an incremental process," he says. "When I joined the movement we used to celebrate [getting] six-month residence permits. Now we’re celebrating two-year, five-year permits. And I always use my story to inspire others like me. Five years ago I was undocumented. Now I’m making a living fighting for migrants’ rights. All we have to do in life is not to give in to despair and be patient."

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