The Migrant Farm Workers on the Frontline of Europe’s Climate Crisis 

The Migrant Farm Workers on the Frontline of Europe’s Climate Crisis 

The town of Campobello di Maraza in Sicily is surrounded by rows of olive trees that stretch out into the horizon. It is a beautiful view with verdant fields, blue skies and the azure waters of the Mediterranean Sea in the distance. It feels like an idyllic slice of Italian life, the stuff of post-card holidays. But just a short stroll away is something much darker – a filthy makeshift camp known as a ‘ghetto’, which is home to hundreds of African migrant farm workers, most of whom are from Senegal, The Gambia and Tunisia. 

This informal settlement is not unique but is just one of many similar ‘ghettos’ that exist in other parts of Italy, such as in Puglia, in the south of the country. These places are more like shanty towns or refugee camps. In Italian “Campobello” means beautiful countryside, but there is nothing beautiful about this camp. There are only grim living conditions for camp residents, the majority of whom live in single-room shacks built from scrap metal, plastic sheets and old wooden doors. They have no access to running water, electricity, sewage system or medical care. The residents light fires to cook and keep the night cold at bay. 

The camp is located just outside the small town of Campobello di Maraza on the site of an old factory. The camp is covered with piles of rubbish, plastic and animal droppings. The residents are forced to urinate and defecate in the open. They wash in dirty makeshift shower rooms that they rent for $1 an hour and have to butcher animals themselves preparing meals in unhygienic makeshift kitchens, using dirty water to wash their food.  

Photograph: Buzz Hoffman

On top of this, the camp can be a dangerous place to live, with drug dealing and forced sex work in the open – even the police do not venture into the camp. The camp was also partially burnt down in a fire in September 2021, which killed a young migrant called Omar Baldeh and left hundreds homeless. Since then, most of the camp has been rebuilt, but it remains a grim place with unsanitary conditions.  

The camp residents form the backbone of the Italian agricultural sector, pick olives, harvest tomatoes, plant seeds and irrigate crops. The United Nations (UN) estimates that between 450,000 to 500,000 migrants work in the agricultural sector, making up about half of its total workforce. Italy’s agricultural sector is massively reliant on low-skilled workers and it is one of the few sectors where migrants can easily find employment. Data also shows it is the industry with the highest share of undocumented migrant workers in the country.  

The farm workers also bear the brunt of deadly heatwaves and extreme weather that Italy is experiencing. While the media has focused on the impact of rising temperatures on European citizens, hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers toil away in 43°C temperatures. Overheated, abused and ignored these workers are often undocumented – and some of them have even fled environmental crises in their countries of origin. 

Driven by poverty, food insecurity and conflict – situations increasingly compounded by escalating environmental crises – thousands of migrants end up on the shores of Southern Europe, looking for a better life. However, many find themselves exploited in places like Campobello di Maraza, with large numbers being recruited into seasonal farm work in terrible conditions, exposing them to Europe’s most extreme heatwave temperatures and dangerous living conditions where fires and lack of sanitation are common. Some of them end up in Sicily, the epicentre of Europe’s heatwaves, where the hottest ever-recorded temperatures on the continent were registered, exceeding 48C in 2021. It is also the entry point into Europe for migrants from Africa, Middle East and South Asia, who make perilous journeys from Libya into Italy. 

They are recruited to work in slave-like conditions for long hours outdoors on large olive and tomato farms by shadowy criminal networks, as part of a massive black market. These workers do not directly work for the farmers but through an illegal system known as “caporalato”, which is operated by gangmasters. These “capos” (bosses) hire migrant workers on behalf of the farmers, which makes them very cheap for the farmers who pay them as little as $2 per hour. These businesses prefer to work with undocumented migrants, as they have few to no labour rights under the law. Italy also does not have a national minimum wage and these workers are employed without contracts and are usually paid in cash.

Yet despite the horrendous conditions migrant farm workers face, every year more than 1,000 migrants fill the Campobello di Maraza camp and similar ones in this area. They toil long hours in the scorching sun working in 40C temperatures picking olives measly from September to November harvest season. But they have no choice according to Boja, a Gambian migrant who is the builder of the Campobello di Maraza camp. He arrived here in 2017 to pick olives, but ended up using his carpentry skills to build the one-room shacks where residents live in. He says people have to do whatever it takes to survive in the “ghetto” and that the migrants like him have families back home who rely upon them sending remittances to pay for food, housing or medicine. 

The farmers in the Campobello di Maraza region primarily grow the Nocellara del Belice olive, one of the most famous olive varieties in the world, which has to be hand-picked and requires many pickers. The large fleshy plump green olive is grown for both the table and for oil production. This variety has been cultivated here since ancient times — from the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans to the Arabs. These delectable olives are sold in expensive delis, restaurants, and supermarkets from London, Paris to New York. 

Photograph:  Bob Jagendorf

However, those who consume this olive in supermarkets or restaurants in Europe do not consider where the olives come from and the line of exploitation and suffering in their supply chains. Unfortunately, this important story has been left on the side lines and the plight of migrants toiling on farms is not acknowledged nor considered. This is despite the fact that this issue is important for the future direction of climate change in Europe, and as the weather heats up with droughts and fires becoming more common, the need to expose this situation is urgent.  And indeed, as is the need to expose just how heavily Europe depends on these workers.  

But European states have been unwilling to create more regular pathways for migration, promote opportunities for circular migration, and address the impacts of climate change on migration flows. They are also unwilling to examine the development and economic failures that drive irregular migration in the first place. Instead, they have been happy to strengthen border security, let migrants die at sea and criminalise so-called ‘economic migrants’. In the last few days, we have yet again seen the horrendous consequences of these failed policies in Europe. With another avoidable tragedy in the Mediterranean that has this time claimed the lives of more than 60 people – including children – in a horrendous shipwreck of the coast of Calabria in southern Italy. 

Additionally in the last few months, the number of migrant arrivals has sharply increased in Europe. With the worsening situation in countries like Tunisia, Bangladesh and Mali, and the climate crises hitting hard in the Horn of Africa, the International Organization for Migration has said we are likely to see a sharp rise in migrant arrivals in Europe in 2023. In Italy, the numbers have increased since the start of the year In fact, immigration arrivals to the country have doubled since she came into office. Ms Meloni says she wants to choke off irregular migration into Italy, by toughening up the system for asylum seekers in the country. She also wants to increase repatriations, target charity rescue ships and has called for a naval blockade of North Africa. But for African migrants already in Italy, her anti-migration promises have heralded frightening times ahead in the country

Moreover, this is not just about exploitation but about the climate crisis in Europe. In Sicily, we are getting a taste of the future that awaits Europe, one of extreme heat, drought and tropical hurricanes. Italy has been experiencing record-breaking temperatures and has been facing an unprecedented drought that has led to crop failure, which is having a serious impact on the food supply across Europe, leading to shortages of olives and tomatoes on supermarket counters.  

Photograph:  USDAgov

The irony is that some of these migrants are themselves driven by the worst-effects of the escalating environmental crisis in their countries of origin. In Palermo, the provincial capital of Sicily, I spoke to Mustapha Jarjou a young Gambian migrant the spokesperson for the Gambian Community Association of Palermo, that represents hundreds of young Gambians like him who risked life and limb to take the ‘backway’ to Europe, surviving perilous journeys only to end up at the mercy of exploitation. He says residents in places like Campobello have fled environmental crisis, and pointed to Senegal in regions like Cassamous where there is a serious issue of deforestation, rising temperatures and changes in weather patterns. If climate change drives more people to leave their homes, then we will see more people arrive in Europe from countries in the Global South who have least contributed to causing climate change. 

Altogether these exploitative practices, combined with the most extreme climate and environmental conditions in Europe, means these workers are in grave danger, lacking the usual protection that would guard workers against heat exposure and dangerous conditions. We have already seen deaths through heat stroke, fire and extreme weather conditions. In June 2021, Camara Fantamadi, a 27-year-old Malian farm worker, died after picking tomatoes in the scorching sun in Puglia, collapsing after earning just €6 an hour. With climate factors set to get worse, the need to reveal this situation and to assuage against this danger is urgent.  

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