10 Oct 2019

The shocking story of what happens to refugees in Italy

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 10 October 2019
Migrants sit in a boat during a rescue operation off the coast of Sicily in May.

Migrants sit in a boat during a rescue operation off the coast of Sicily in May. Photo: AFP

Cheap, bulk tinned tomatoes make a meal go further and are essential for those Italian staples. But after listening to The Detail today, you might hesitate about picking the imported variety off a supermarket shelf. 

Our host Sharon Brettkelly talks to Ayo Awokoya, a British journalist for The Guardian who went undercover in Italy to expose slavery in the tomato picking industry.

Awokoya found low paid workers toiling picking vegetables 12 hours a day without breaks, no toilet facilities, without food, in work that was so laborious some died from exhaustion.

These are the migrants you see being rescued by Italian coastguard as they choose the most dangerous routes out of Africa via Libya. This is where they end up – in shacks in shanty towns on the edge of communities, shunned, treated as less than human, and worked to death as they struggle to pay off debt.

“I thought is this even Italy any more, like where are we? Why are these migrants living in these appalling conditions? The thing that stood out to me the most was when they kept repeating these parallels to the slave trade 400 years ago … when they started saying, what’s really changed for Africans?”

The Italian mafia is making millions by exploiting them. And we’re helping them by buying cheap Italian tomatoes.

“It was just one of those situations that just didn’t seem believable,” says Awokoya.

“It was these migrants in a kind of situation that you’d think you were in a war torn country, not in Italy. The segregation was completely stark. It was completely lawless, there was a lot of criminality. A lot of these migrants were just doing what they could to survive. It was just one of those things that you’ll just never be able to understand until you see it for yourself and even then you come back to your comfortable life in the Western world and it’s just very jarring.

“At times it’s almost very difficult to believe that it exists.”

Awokoya’s infiltration job was made easier because she is originally from Nigeria so a lot of Italians mistook her for a migrant. That was an eye-opener too.

The migrants were largely from West Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq. Some left because they were political activists, some were economic refugees and a lot were very young. Many had brought children with them, giving birth in Libya. Many were in the process of applying for political asylum but the legal and governmental processes designed to protect them let them down.

Awokoya tells her story today, and tomorrow The Detail will look at how it all relates to our supermarket shop in New Zealand.

Photo: RNZ