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Farm workers protest in Italy after migrant crash deaths

Hundreds of mostly African farm labourers downed tools and marched from fields in southern Italy chanting "we are not slaves" Wednesday, protesting conditions for tomato pickers after 16 migrant workers died in two road crashes.

Farm workers protest in Italy after migrant crash deaths
Migrant workers march near Foggia to protest exploitative working conditions. Photo: Roberto D'Agostino/AFP

The near-identical accidents within 48 hours of each other have highlighted the plight of farm workers around the the city of Foggia in the Puglia region, where thousands of foreign nationals spend the summer season harvesting tomatoes, often at the mercy of day labourer recruiters sometimes linked to organised crime.

Striking demonstrators shouted “we are not slaves, no to exploitation” as they made their way from the countryside towards Foggia. 

Italy's government has scrambled to respond to the outcry over the deaths, with hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini declaring war on the “mafia” in and around Foggia and promising to eradicate it “street by street, town by town”, during a visit to the region on Tuesday. 

Both the road crashes in the region happened when lorries transporting tomatoes slammed into vans carrying foreign farm workers returning from their day's work. 

An accident on Saturday left four African farm workers dead and four others seriously injured, while Monday's smash killed 12 people, all non-EU citizens.

The Foggia province hosts thousands of Africans who spend the summer harvesting season picking tomatoes in blazing temperatures alongside workers from eastern Europe, typically Romanians, Bulgarians and Poles.

Although most of those working in the fields in Italy have regular papers,  they rarely receive the benefits and salaries required by law, and many live in squalid conditions.

They are often beholden to the recruiters, who operate as intermediaries and collect a portion of the workers' pay.

For years, unions and associations that help migrant workers have called for a public transport system to be created around Foggia for the peak harvest season.

The Puglia region has now budgeted for such a system, governor Michele Emiliano said on Monday, but he added that cooperation and transparency from the farms was crucial.

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POLITICS

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.

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