This week I’m in Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, a region of baroque towns, olive groves and orchards, turquoise and emerald seas and beaches, sunshine, the smell of honeysuckle, and chilled, floral white wines. The Appian Way begins in Rome and ends in Brindisi. Its terminus is still marked by a Roman column. After the Punic Wars, Brindisi became a major center of Roman naval power and maritime trade.
Like the rest of southern Italy, Puglia has been struggling economically for decades. It feels sleepy. At lunchtime, all the shops close and don’t re-open until the evening. Many Pugliesi have emigrated north or abroad. The region’s seventeenth-century towns are exquisite affairs of golden stone, decorated with riots of cherubs and strange beasts. But the areas around the ports of Bari and Brindisi are seedy, pockmarked by drug dealers and brutalist modern housing towers.
Puglia’s ports are now the gateway to Europe. In April, the EU signed a deal with Turkey to halt flows across the Aegean. This, along with the closure of the border between Greece and Macedonia, drastically curtailed migration to Greece, where arrivals have been slowed to a trickle of about 50 a day. Some 750 refugees and migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan and Western Africa, are instead arriving every day in southern Italy. Last week, Italy’s Coast Guard rescued more than 4,500 migrants from the sea in a single day. The so-called Balkan route, used by hundreds of thousands of migrants on their way to northern Europe last year, is effectively closed. It has been replaced by the Adriatic route, which brings tens of thousands more migrants from Albania, Turkey, and Greece to Puglia. Italy is now the frontline of the European refugee crisis.
When asylum-seekers arrive in Italy, they’re given documents that last for seven days. After that, they have to choose whether to make their asylum claims in Italy or attempt to migrate to another country. Those who manage to get to Italy’s northern borders with France, Switzerland, and Austria now face increased patrols and fences. Most are repelled. Their visas then expire, and they then languish outside the system. According to Doctors Without Borders, more than ten thousand refugees now live in handmade shacks or camping tents throughout Italy. They form a vast slave army of illegal work-gang laborers, held by the mafia in rural ghettos. According to the first foreigner ever to be granted witness protection in Italy, migrants who have proven unable to pay their smugglers have even been killed for their organs:
Mr Atta … said the shocking number of deaths among migrants attempting to cross the sea is what led him to confess, specifically the death of 360 due to a boat sinking in Lampedusa, though he said he was not involved in the incident.“The deaths that we were aware of were a small part of it,” Mr Atta told police, according to local media. “In Eritrea alone there have been victims in eight out of 10 families.”
Migrant shelters have been attacked, and last week, an asylum-seeker was murdered:
A 36-year-old Nigerian asylum seeker died Wednesday after being left in an irreversible coma after being attacked with a ripped-out road-sign pole by a soccer ultra after defending his partner in the Marche coastal town of Fermo.The asylum seeker, Emmanuel Chidi Namdi, was beaten by a 35-year-old ultra of local soccer club Fermana who had first insulted Namdi’s wife Chinyery, 24, calling her an “African monkey”, police said after arresting the so-called fan.The couple had been at the Fermo bishop’s seminary since September after fleeing Boko Haram violence in Nigeria. A local priest, Father Vinicio Albanesi, said the attack was probably linked to four bombs recently planted outside Fermo churches that have worked with migrants.The bombs, which caused little damage and hurt no one, were left outside the churches including the Duomo between February and May. All the churches were run by priests who are socially active in helping migrants, drug addicts and the homeless and marginalised.
This is the context that’s pushing Italy to take a hardline negotiating stance toward the UK. Although it would be rational and in everyone’s best economic interests to allow the UK to keep its access to the single market, offering access to the market without demanding the UK accept the free movement of people would be domestic political suicide for Matteo Renzi. The Five-Star movement is nipping at his heels, promising to end migration (just how they intend to do this is unclear), restructure Italy’s debt, and ditch the Euro. The movement is now leading Renzi’s party in opinion polls.
Italy is the second-most indebted state in the EU after Greece, with €2.2 trillion in debt, and its banking system is carrying €360 billion worth of bad loans. Renzi has called for a referendum, in October, on constitutional reforms designed to limit the power of the Senate. In practice, the referendum will probably prove to be a vote of confidence in his performance. If he loses, he has vowed to resign. There’s no way he can afford to be seen, before the vote, as the prime minister who allowed the UK to wriggle out of the migration burden.
I’ll be in Puglia all week. I’ll be speaking to migrants, asylum seekers, and other locals about life, death, and politics on the Adriatic route. Are there any questions you’d like me to ask? I’ll let you know what I learn.
Your contributions made this trip possible. I’m grateful, as ever, for your support and your curiosity.
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