The message blaring out of the speakers on the van was stark: “Any black person who is hiding in Rosarno should get out. If we catch you, we will kill you.”
Abdul Rashid Muhammad Mahmoud Iddris got out.
He’s one of hundreds–perhaps thousands–of African migrants taken by bus out of the Italian town over the weekend after violent demonstrations shook southern Italy.
The unrest was among the worst of its kind in recent Italian history, said a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration.
“We have not witnessed such protests in a long time,” said Flavio Di Giacomo. “There were several thousand, but I don’t know exactly how many people were involved.”
On Thursday, a BMW pulled up outside the factory, a man got out, shot one of the Africans living there, 26-year-old Ayiva Saibou, and drove off.
A passing policeman told Iddris and his friends it was not his job to help the wounded man, so they called the Red Cross to take the man to a hospital for treatment, Iddris said. Press reports said Saibou–who is a native of Togo with regular working papers–was shot with a compressed air gun.
A few hours after the shooting, a group of about 300 immigrants poured into to the street where the incident took place earlier. “They put on an angry demonstration, hampering the free circulation in the streets, damaging garbage bins, hitting with sticks and rocks numerous passing cars,” according to a police report.
But police forced the demonstrators to turn back, threatening them with tear gas, Iddris said. Six or seven people were arrested, he said.
The next morning, Friday, the immigrants tried again, playing drums as they tried to march from the factory to Rosarno’s town hall, he said.
That’s when they heard the warning.
Iddris–who is originally from Sudan and has been in Italy for about 18 months, first as an asylum seeker and then without legal documentation, and who picks oranges in season–said police arrested another 10 to 20 people at Friday’s demonstration.
Italian press reports said the demonstrators had burned cars.
Later on Friday, Iddris said, police arranged for buses to move the Africans away from Rosarno to another village.
But the new location was no safer, he said. Police had to keep locals and migrants physically separated Saturday.
Di Giacomo, the International Organization for Migration spokesman, said Italy has many migrants, often from Africa, living in conditions bordering on slavery.
The migrants who demonstrated last week “were exploited. They were just paid 20 euros (about $29) per day and they lived in slums, the same as slavery conditions. A few months ago in (the southern Italian region of) Campagna we discovered a similar situation. It’s unfortunately a reality in many places, especially in southern Italy.”
Italy is one of the top European destinations for migrants, the migration organization’s figures show. More than 3.6 million legal migrants live in the country–6.2 percent of the total population–and Italy has the European Union’s highest annual growth rate of migrants, along with Spain.
It’s hard to know exactly how many illegal immigrants there are in the country, Di Giacomo said.
“It is not controlled in any way. They change the area where they work because of the season of the year–oranges in the winter, tomatoes in the summer,” he said. “With economic migrants, many of them arrive with tourist visas and overstay seeking work. They can arrive in so many ways,” including paying traffickers thousands of dollars to smuggle them into the country.
Italian media have speculated that the Mafia was behind the shooting that triggered the violence.