arts & letters
bob press at an italian migrant camp

While most of the media attention recently has been on the massive movement of refugees from Syria into Europe, another, much smaller stream of migrants is moving from Africa to Europe, mostly via Italy. Italy is the destination because of an Italian Island (Lampedusa) not far from the North African shore of Libya. They are fleeing political persecution or dire poverty.


In the summer of 2014 and 2015 I began locating, meeting, and interviewing some of these African migrants in Italy. I’ve made lots of new friends among them. What jumps out at me is something generally missing in media reports: they are amazing individuals, some of the most courageous, determined and hard-working people I have met in years of crisscrossing across sub-Sahara Africa as a journalist and now as an academic researcher.

Perugia, Italy - Linus of Nigeria, granted permission to stay

Fatama, refugee activist in Naples, Italy 2015. 'We are human beings."

Bob Press with friends from 'Radio Ghetto' set up in an African migrant camp near Foggia, Italy, July 2015. Bob lived in this structure of cardboard and plastic for three days while interviewing migrants.


Where many Syrian refugees have had relatively short boat trips to Greek islands, with some deaths, the trip across part of the Mediterranean is much more treacherous. Greedy human smugglers charge exorbitant rates and over-crowd flimsy boats—even rafts—with anxious African migrants. The crafts are so filled with people that they sometimes capsize or they run out of fuel and food. More than 20,000 have drowned since the year 2000, according to some reports.



But before the Sea crossing, they have to survive the Sahara. Many have perished there, abandoned by truck drivers, or victims of breakdowns far from water. Then comes Libya, unsettled by civil strife. African migrants tell of being sold among thieves and forced to call families for ransom money. Others report having suffered torture in the lawless society.


Caserta, Italy 2015 - private refugee assistance center


Come with me to an African migrant camp near Foggia, in Southern Italy. Hundreds of African migrants, mostly undocumented, gather each summer to hand-harvest tomatoes in the area. As in the U.S., if the migrants didn’t show up, many crops would rot. Italians, like Americans, simply shun such work. The migrants return from a day of stoop-labor picking with tired backs and aching legs. They sleep on mattresses in cardboard ‘house,’ get up and repeat the task day after day – if there is work. Often there are more willing workers than work.


The camp is an African village, complete with small cafes, shops, including one which charges cell phones, music, a tiny disco, and a brothel. I lived in the camp, known as the ‘Ghetto,’  for three days and nights this summer, sleeping on plastic matting, in a house of cardboard covered with plastic against any rain. This gave me an opportunity to get to know some of the African migrants, see how they live and work, and gain enough trust to be granted interviews.


Moussa from Gambia 2015- in migrant camp near Mezanone, Italy. 'It's not easy.'

Mezanone, Italy. Father Arcangelo Maira, a priest, briefs Scout volunteers from Pizza, Italy) who taught Italian to African migrants in camp near Foggia.

Helping build our 'house' in migrant camp near Foggia, Italy

A local priest coordinated volunteer work by a group of high school Scouts. Each afternoon they taught Italian and organized repairs for bicycles, a cheap mode of transportation.

Migrants are often reluctant to talk about their cases. Migrants have to present their case to asylum panels to win permission to stay. Many come for economic reasons and either embellish their non-political cases, or after refusal, ‘disappear’ into the world of undocumented workers. But many spoke to me on a first name only basis.


2015, Volunteer has hair done by African migrant child at migrant camp near Foggia, Italy

2015, three new West African migrant friends who helped build our 'house' in camp near Foggia, Italy.

Newly-arrived migrants from West Africa 2015, near Perugia, Italy, with Barbara Pilati, a refugee program director.

Two West African migrants to whom Bob briefly taught Italian under a tree at African migrant camp near Foggia, Italy.

2015, West African migrant at camp near Foggia. 'I haven't seen my children for 3 years.'

'House' of cardboard  plastic (left) where Bob Press stayed three days in Africa migrant camp near Foggia, Italy

Italy, like much of Europe, is aging and needs migrants to do manual labor, pay taxes, and help support the elderly. The challenge recently is that because of Syria and several other crises, the number of migrants, including from Africa, has overwhelmed Europe reception and absorption capacity.


Todu, refugee from Mali, in Perugia, Italy.

Volunteer Scout teching African migrants Italian at camp near Foggia, Italy.

African refugee sleeping on sidewalk, Rome, Italy 2015

Bob Press is Associate Professor of Political Science at The University of Southern Mississippi. He is the author of three books: Ripples of Hope: How Ordinary People Resist Repression without Violence (Amsterdam University Press/University of Chicago Press, 2015); Peaceful Resistance: Advancing Human Rights and Democratic Freedom (Ashgate, U.K., 2006); and The New Africa: Dispatches from a Changing Continent (U. Press of Florida, 1999).


Bob founded the student-led USM Center for Human Rights and Civil Liberties and serves as the advisor for Student for Human Rights He served as President of the Faculty Senate (2014-5) and is on the Executive Board of the Forrest County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Bob is married to Betty Press, a USM Adjunct Professor of photography. Together they once traveled around the world for two years, mostly by hitch-hiking.

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