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Letter to European Commissioners Re. Use of EU Funds by Italy to Build Migrant Worker Camps in Breach of Fundamental Rights

Informal settlement “La Pista” in Borgo Mezzanone, Puglia region, Italy, July 1, 2020.  © 2020 Giorgia Orlandi, @giorgiaorlandi_

Ylva Johansson
European Commissioner for Home Affairs

Nicolas Schmit
European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights

European Commission
Rue de la Loi 200
1049 Brussels

Berlin, 4 April 2023

Re: Use of EU funds by Italy to build migrant worker camps in breach of fundamental rights

Dear Commissioner Johansson and Commissioner Schmit,

We are writing to share our concerns and recommendations regarding the use of EU funds to construct temporary housing for migrant workers in Italy. Evidence we have reviewed, including documentation from Italian authorities themselves, indicates that such funds at present are helping perpetuate, not alleviate, the ghettoization, vulnerability, and segregation of migrant workers in rural areas, further entrenching their precarious living conditions.

To ensure that EU funds are spent in line with EU policies and guidelines on inclusion, anti-discrimination and desegregation, we call on the European Commission to carry out a thorough investigation, to strengthen its monitoring of the way EU funds are being used in Italy, and when warranted to re-allocate them to initiatives that promote migrant workers’ integration and access to dignified housing.

The funds provided to the Italian authorities through the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) 2014-2020 and the European Social Fund (ESF) 2014-2020, have been used by Italian authorities to support its “Supreme” and “PIU Supreme” projects, which among various objectives, include the stated aim of providing housing solutions to address the problem of informal settlements, concentrated mostly in rural areas in Southern regions. Further funding under the Next Generation EU – NGEU programme is expected to be used by Italian authorities to support local authority projects offering housing solutions for migrant workers and the eventual dismantling of all informal settlements.

In these informal settlements, as widely documented by respected organisations such as ANCI (the national association of Italian local administrations), MEDU (Doctors for Human Rights), INTERSOS (a humanitarian aid charity) or lawyers from ADU (Human Rights Association) and as acknowledged by Italian authorities, thousands of migrant agricultural workers and their families are suffering breaches of their rights to adequate housing, medical care, and social support; and widespread labor rights abuses. It is estimated by ANCI that over 10,000 migrant workers are living in these informal settlements, in what ANCI and multiple other sources describe as overcrowded, unsanitary and precarious conditions, usually with no access to running water, functioning toilets, gas, heating or electricity. At least 14 people have died in informal settlements since 2016 due to the precarious conditions, frequent fires and inhalation of fumes from dangerous and primitive equipment used in winter to survive the freezing cold. Furthermore, the lack of a formal address often prevents migrant workers living in informal settlements from securing legal documentation required to register their residency, access specialist health care, renew their status papers, and receive welfare support.

To better understand the role of EU funding, Human Rights Watch reviewed a vast selection of sources, reports, newspapers articles and government data in the public domain, and spoke with local trade unionists, charity workers, and legal advisors, about their work in connection with problems experienced by agricultural migrant workers living in informal settlements. Our research found that one set of substantial investments made by Italian local authorities under the EU-funded “Supreme” and “PIU Supreme” projects has focused on building camps of prefabricated plastic housing modules (known as “foresterie”) adjacent to informal settlements, or otherwise in isolated locations in the countryside, far from residential towns and services. As documented in the Annex attached to this letter, “foresterie” are usually made of hundreds of 4x4 meter plastic containers which come without furniture and accommodate 4 people each, therefore housing hundreds of workers in a restricted space, usually with insufficient toilets and washing facilities.

In order to obtain accurate and complete information about past and ongoing interventions funded by the Italian authorities to overcome informal settlements, Human Rights Watch also submitted detailed freedom of information access requests (in Italian “accesso civico generalizzato”) to the Ministry for Work and Social Policies and to the Puglia regional administration in January 2023. As of this writing, we had received only limited documentation from the Ministry for Work and Social Policies and nothing from the Puglia regional administration, despite promises from the latter that they would provide the required documentation.

As explained more in detail in the Annex, the “Supreme” and “PIU Supreme” projects sponsored by the Italian Ministry for Work and Social Policies, mostly aimed at fighting labour exploitation and the “caporalato” gangmaster system, include among their stated aims the provision of housing solutions to agricultural migrant workers living in informal settlements, with the latter project being focused on trying to build individualised paths for integration for exploited or vulnerable migrants including assistance to access dignified accommodation. Yet local charities and trade unions who have staff working in the sites and assisting agricultural migrant workers suffering exploitation and other problems in the informal settlements, have said provision of these “foresterie” modules have failed to improve housing or promote meaningful integration of migrant workers, but instead their conditions have gradually worsened and become extensions of the informal settlements: the “foresterie” have only exacerbated migrant ghettoization and relative isolation in rural areas away from local towns, services, and communities. Under the PIU Supreme Project’s “integration budget,” only 18 migrant workers have been helped to leave the informal settlements and obtain decent accommodation so far according to its January 2023 newsletter.

The use of the funds by the Italian authorities in this way appears to be inconsistent with EU standards and European Commission guidance.

The November 2020 “Communication by the EU Commission to the EU Parliament, the EU Council, the EU Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions – Action Plan for Integration and Inclusion 2021-2027” states that member states should use EU funds such as the European Social Fund and the Asylum and Migration Fund to fight discrimination against migrants in the housing market and promote non-segregated adequate and affordable housing to migrants and EU citizens with a migrant background. In particular, the EU Commission recommends that Member States promote models of autonomous housing (rather than collective housing) as early as possible for refugees and asylum seekers, who make up more than 30 percent of migrant workers living in informal settlements in Italy.

The Racial Equality Directive (2000/43/EC) sets out the obligation of all member states to combat discrimination and prevent in particular discrimination based on the grounds of racial or ethnic origin notably in social protection, education, and access to and supply of goods and services, including housing. Segregation is discriminatory since it implies either less favourable treatment or an unjustified particular disadvantage, both of which are prohibited by the directive.

The European Commission’s “Guidance for Member States on the use of European Structural and Investment Funds in tackling educational and spatial segregation,” dated November 2015, stresses that interventions must follow the principles of non-segregation and desegregation. ESI Funds investments should not be used “to establish new isolated facilities or strengthen existing ones”; and investments in housing or education “should not lead to increased concentration or further physical isolation of marginalised groups”; and such investments should not “contribute to any perpetuation of segregation of marginalised communities.”

As described above, the way Italian authorities have been using AMIF and ESF funding to “Supreme” and “PIU Supreme” projects to build, upgrade, and manage plastic container “foresterie” next to informal settlements leads to greater concentrations of migrant agricultural workers and their physical isolation in rural areas in unsanitary and unsafe conditions, a clear breach of the standards and guidelines for the use of EU funds. EU assistance on this issue remains critical and can play an important role in alleviating migrant suffering and finding solutions, but only if it is reallocated to promote effective pathways to autonomous, dignified accommodation for migrants in residential areas close to local services and communities.

Information received from the EU delegation in Italy indicates that the “Supreme” project, which ended in October 2022, was monitored by the Commission as it was funded through AMIF emergency assistance. It was a pilot emergency project, with a limited focus on longer term solutions. The EU delegation told Human Rights Watch that the “PIU Supreme” project, which is still ongoing and aimed at longer term solutions, is not undergoing the same level of monitoring due to different procedures for projects under ESF funding.

In May 2022, the Italian authorities allocated 200 million euro from the National Recovery and Resilience Plan (which will be funded by Next Generation EU – NGEU programme) to selected local administrations from the regions most affected by informal settlements (with almost 114 million euro allocated exclusively to town administrations in the Apulia region) to fund projects offering housing solutions for migrant workers and the eventual dismantling of all informal settlements. Sadly, media and civil society groups have reported the intention of many local administrations to use such funds to build more “foresterie,” and there are concerns that these significant resources might be indeed wasted again in ineffective and counterproductive interventions that would perpetuate migrant workers’ segregation in violation of their fundamental rights. At this stage, with these significant resources available for longer term and sustainable housing solutions, it is imperative that monitoring is strengthened.

To ensure that ESF and future NGEU funding in Italy is used in a way that is consistent with EU standards and actually helps to improve fundamental rights for vulnerable migrant workers, it is important that the European Commission and other EU institutions take steps to monitor their use more closely and carry out thorough impact assessments.

In that regard we would welcome information from you on the steps taken by the EU Commission and any other relevant EU institutions to ensure that the AMIF and ESF funding provided to Italy under the “Supreme” and “PIU Supreme” projects has been used in a way consistent with fundamental rights and EU standards.

We would also encourage you to:

  • Carry out an up-to-date, thorough and in-depth review of the way ESF funds are being used in Italy under the ongoing “PIU Supreme” project to ensure that no further EU funding is used to build new “foresterie” and that resources are instead allocated to effective initiatives promoting migrant workers’ access to autonomous dignified housing and integration, in consultation with the migrant worker community.
  • Strengthen EU monitoring of the use by Italian local authorities of the 200 million euros allocated from Italy’s National Plan for Recovery and Resilience (PNRR), based on Next Generation EU funds, for the fight against informal settlements, ensuring that these significant EU funds will not be used to build new “foresterie” but will instead support effective initiatives promoting migrant workers’ access to autonomous dignified housing and integration.
  • Publicly raise these issues with Italian authorities in writing and at formal and informal EU meetings, advocating for an end to the construction of “foresterie” and other projects perpetuating migrant agricultural workers’ segregation and marginalisation, and making the release of further EU funding conditional on full respect for human rights, EU law and guiding principles for migration, housing and integration policies.

We urge the Commission and your Directorates-General in particular to intervene to ensure that the Italian authorities stop funding projects in breach of EU law and policy principles, which are perpetuating violations of migrant workers’ fundamental rights and are counter to the core objectives that the funding is supposed to help achieve.

We stand ready to meet at any time to discuss these issues further and remain at your disposal to provide any further information.


Hugh Williamson
Executive Director, Europe & Central Asia
Human Rights Watch



Annex: additional information on the situation of migrant agricultural workers in Italy

Exploitation of migrant agricultural workers living in informal settlements

The agricultural sector in Italy is affected by significant problems in relation to irregular employment, exploitation, and various breaches of contractual regulations and labour rights by employers including low wages, failures to issue payslips reflecting the real number of hours worked, and other irregularities. Migrants represent a significant proportion of the agricultural workforce in Italy.

According to data presented by the National Labour Institute about inspections carried out in the agricultural sector in 2021, about 71.6 percent of 2,707 agricultural workers found in conditions of irregular employment were migrants from outside the EU, with 304 identified as victims of the “caporalato” system of labour recruitment and exploitation through intermediary “gangmasters.”

Problems associated with agricultural work range from its often-seasonal nature to very low wages, from widespread irregularities in employment contracts to exploitation and the “caporalato” system, from lack of working mechanisms to match labour supply and demand to the cost of transport for workers to commute between fields and residential areas.

For migrant workers, these issues are further worsened by more general factors such as immigration laws making residence permit validity or renewal conditional on a work contract, and ineffective asylum reception and integration policies, including failure to provide language classes and vocational training for asylum seekers and recognised refugees. Most of them subsequently face unemployment, discrimination in access to social and housing support, widespread racism and xenophobia affecting the house rental market, and more.

Taken together, these factors render migrants extremely vulnerable to homelessness and destitution, forcing many to become agricultural workers and live in informal settlements such as abandoned buildings and camps made of shacks and tents in rural areas.

Many respected organisations and media outlets have documented the inhuman and degrading conditions suffered by migrant workers in informal settlements, including MEDU (Doctors for Human Rights), INTERSOS (a humanitarian aid charity) and Caritas (a Catholic relief association), as well as trade unions representing agricultural workers. According to a detailed 2022 mapping survey and assessment on a national level conducted by ANCI, the national association of Italian local administrations, and Cittalia, the national association’s foundation dedicated to social policy, in partnership with the Ministry of Work and Social Policies, more than 10,000 agricultural migrant workers in Italy live in informal settlements, mostly in the southern regions of Apulia, Sicilia, Calabria, and Campania.

The assessment estimated that over 7,253 migrant workers are living in informal settlements in the Apulia region alone, with the “ex pista” (former airport runaway) camp in Borgo Mezzanone, the Rignano “Gran Ghetto” in Torretta Antonacci, and the “Ghana Ghetto Tre Titoli” in Cerignola hosting over 4,000, 2,000, and 380 people, respectively. True numbers, however, are likely to be significantly higher, as estimates are based on the information provided by local administrations that replied to the questionnaires sent for the survey, only about half of those who were contacted.

Over 90 percent of informal settlements in Italy are populated by migrants from outside the EU, and there are families with children living in around a quarter of them. Although some seasonal workers move across provinces and regions following the harvesting seasons of different crops, at least 40 percent of migrants living in informal settlements are permanently resident there. In 76.6 percent of all informal settlements across Italy, there are no government-provided social, sanitary, or legal assistance services, and no language courses or vocational training. Italian authorities have sought to address this complex and long-standing phenomenon at various levels from regional administrations to prefectures, with numerous initiatives claiming to be aimed at overcoming informal settlements, labour exploitation, and “caporalato,” and at improving living conditions for migrant workers.

Although in some cases animated by a forward-looking vision of the interconnected aspects of the phenomenon, such initiatives have mostly resulted in only partial dismantling of informal settlements (in particular the “Grande Ghetto” of Rignano and the Runway of Borgo Mezzanone), followed by emergency housing solutions without any involvement of the recipients of the interventions.

Testament to the failure of these temporary measures is the fact that over 41 percent of informal settlements in Italy, including most of the biggest ones, have a stable or permanent character: 11 have been in place for over 20 years, 7 for over 10 years, and 16 for over 7 years.

The ”Supreme” and “PIU Supreme” projects against “caporalato,” labour exploitation, and informal settlements

The project “Supreme - South Protagonist in Overcoming Emergencies in the Context of Severe Exploitation and Severe Marginality of foreigners regularly present in the 5 least developed regions” (Supreme project) was initiated as part of the “Three-year plan to combat labour exploitation in agriculture and caporalato” adopted on February 20, 2020, by the “Caporalato Table,” a body chaired by the Italian Ministry for Work and Social Policies and tasked with devising policies to combat the exploitation of agricultural workers and the gangmaster system. It was financed through emergency assistance resources from the Asylum Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) 2021-2020 managed directly by the European Commission (EC).

On July 25, 2019, the EC’s Directorate General for Migration and Home Affairs approved the project budget of 33,557,713.33, of which €30,237,546.36 was to be financed by the EU, according to correspondence received by Human Rights Watch from the Italian Ministry of Work and Social Policies. The project officially started in October 2019, suffered severe delays and amendments due to the Covid pandemic, and concluded in October 2022.

The complementary “PIU Supreme (Individualized Paths Out of exploitation)” project is financed by the European Social Fund 2014-2020 through Italy’s National Operational Plan for Inclusion with a budget of €19,799,680. It officially began in October 2019 and is ongoing.

From several documents reviewed by Human Rights Watch, including disclosure received from the Ministry for Work and Social Policies and a 2021 report by the IPRES Foundation about social policies in the Apulia region, it appears that significant EU funding for the “Supreme” and “PIU Supreme” projects have been used to finance the construction and ongoing costs of plastic container camps (so-called “foresterie”) adjacent to big informal settlements such as Borgo Mezzanone and Rignano-Torretta Antonacci, one next to the “Casa Sankara” hostel, and others in isolated rural areas such as those in Nardò, Turi, Lesina, and Poggio Imperiale. Conditions in most of these “foresterie” are reported to be worsening and to have turned into new informal settlements or extensions of the already existing adjacent ones.

For instance, in Turi €160,000 was spent to set up what the main Italian trade union CGIL described in June 2022 as a sort of makeshift refugee camp, where workers live in plastic containers of 4x4 meters, without furniture and only a wooden floor platform on which migrants put blankets or mattresses donated by charities to sleep or lie on. The few toilets and showers in Turi are said to be insufficient as the camp was planned for a maximum of 120 people, but now 185 are living in the plastic containers, with another 350 people living nearby in camping tents.

Similar containers were placed next to the Borgo Mezzanone informal settlement and the adjacent former CARA (reception centre for asylum seekers) building which, according to a plan previously approved in 2021, was supposed to be converted into a big foresteria for migrant workers living in the adjacent informal settlement. However, the plan has not been implemented until today. Some housing modules were placed next to the CARA and the informal settlement to be used as a temporary Covid-19 camp for sick migrants in 2020. After that, the plastic containers were subsequently occupied by migrant workers from the nearby informal settlements. Conditions have worsened and the “foresteria” has become an extension of the settlement, where many migrants have died over the years due to fires and inhalation of fumes from unsafe braziers used to survive in the cold.

Another example is the “foresteria” built next to the Rignano “Gran Ghetto” in Torretta Antonacci, made of 106 plastic containers each occupied by about 4 migrants, with only 8 containers for bathrooms and showers: the containers have become a part of the informal settlement and done nothing to provide decent housing and a way out from the criminality, exploitation, and too often inhuman and life-threatening conditions there.

Instead of investing in meaningful attempts to take migrant workers away from the informal settlements and promote their access to dignified independent housing close to residential areas and local services, Italian authorities are directing significant funding to initiatives that, even if well intentioned and of immediate benefit to some migrants, have the effect of entrenching informal settlements. Substantial funding is used for drinking water supply, sewage and drainage services, and food parcels in informal settlements, for the establishment of “forestierie,” and for security and supervision services inside some of them, such as those of Torretta Antonacci and of Boncuri, in a rural area near Nardò. The latter site consists of 80 plastic containers accommodating only those who have a regular resident permit or work contract, with all others camping in wood and plastic shacks in the surrounding area to access the insufficient bathrooms and services of the camp.

According to a network of local civil society organisations including MEDU (Doctors for Human Rights), even the “foresteria” of 100 plastic containers built next to the “Casa Sankara” experimental shelter run by the migrant cooperative Ghetto Out is not a housing alternative capable of promoting social and labour inclusion and protection of rights. MEDU says the physical isolation of the site, the lack of medium- or long-term planning, the failure to involve recipients in decision-making, and the absence of meaningful integration outcomes render the “foresteria” ill-advised. According to charities working in informal settlements and the main trade unions for agricultural workers, such emergency arrangements do not and cannot provide effective solutions to the systematic segregation of migration workers, daily violations of their fundamental rights, and denial of access to meaningful social integration.

Not all funds from the Supreme and PIU Supreme projects have been allocated to initiatives that end up entrenching migrant isolation in informal settlements: although the amounts have been small, some funds have also gone to initiatives or organisations carrying out comprehensive multi-layered interventions that try to provide meaningful housing solutions for migrant workers, the “Integration Budget” representing a positive example. According to trade unionists, legal advisors, and charity workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch, examples of effective interventions in informal settlements could include: efforts to assist migrants in obtaining regular work contracts to make it easier for them to rent properties in the formal sector, liaising with landlords on behalf of migrants to overcome widespread racist attitudes, providing financial guarantees and contributions towards rental fees or deposits, arranging free transport to workplaces, and promoting the genuine integration of migrants in residential areas with access to local services and communities.

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