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Puglia: The Achilles Heel in the Boot of Italy

Puglia: the Achilles heel in the heel of the boot of Italy

Our task in Italy is to engage students in meaningful ways in hopes that they will develop empathy skills and a sense of self-knowledge anchored in justice thinking. As faculty teaching a community based research course titled Issues in Social Justice: Immigration and Globalization, we place students in the Bologna community working with immigrants. The Spring Semester includes a visit to the Salento region, the heel of Puglia so that students may deepen their understanding of how immigrants, many fleeing revolution, poverty and drought in Africa, describe their lives. This feature story offers a perspective on the issues challenging Puglia, Italy and the cultural and economic future of the region. Click here to see the SP 12 Puglia Trip Agenda.

By Vittorio Buffatti and Fulvia Antonelli

The Red Earth (Terra Rossa)

Today, the red earth of Puglia is a place where many new arrivals make their first euros. Refugees work to survive by harvesting produce often in fields which remain under mafia control. Puglia, the region representing Italy’s heel, has always been a target of tradesmen traveling by sea and of populations migrating from the southern Mediterranean coasts. The cross roads of peoples can still be heard in the Pugliese dialect. The griko (from the Greek language) was brought by ancient Greek or a byzantine population to the southernmost stretches of Puglia, called Grecìa, where they settled. The arbëreshë (from Albanian language) was introduced into western Puglia by Albanian migrants between the XV and XVIII centuries.   In recent decades Albanian migrants settled in large numbers after two major waves of migrants, the first, broadcast worldwide during the collapse of the Albanian system in 1991, the second in 1996 after a major financial and banking crisis. In 2011, Albanians represent the largest foreign community in the region with 22,000+ residents, followed by Romanians with almost 20,000.  The total population of foreign residents in Puglia is 85,000.  However, it is difficult to know the true numbers as asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants who never appear on the census books are arriving in unprecedented numbers fleeing wars (Tunisia, Libya, Egypt) and drought in Sub-Saharan African (i.e. Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia).

The Refugees

In recent months an estimated 40,000 have made the 24 hour journey across the Mediterranean landing on Italian shores fleeing the troubled conflict zones in North Africa. Few have documents to prove where they are really from, and even fewer have money after paying traffickers between $1,500 and $3,000 to make the trip. Those who qualify for refugee status are often transferred from the southern Italian Island of Lampedusa to Puglia collective centers to wait out asylum hearings. Eventually they’ll either be turned back to their countries of origin or will be granted papers allowing them to freely travel throughout the open-border countries of Europe.  However, a common outcome in the region is for refugees to flee under loose Italian supervisor into the fields of Puglia. In a recent New York Times report, in Manduria (Southern Puglia), officials appeared nonchalant about the escapes. Asked why the Italian authorities appeared to do so little to stop the immigrants’ fleeing from collective centers into the back roads of Puglia, Giuseppe Caruso, the special commissioner for the immigration emergency, asked rhetorically: “What should we do? Should we shoot them?”

According to the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, an NGO network, about 14,000 people had fled to Italy and Malta from Libya by mid-summer 2011. Another 1,200 were missing, suggesting that people who try to flee the hostilities by sea stand a chance of about one in 13 of dying in the attempt.

The Crisis

Puglia is the second poorest region in Italy with a per capita income of 16,932 euro (approximately $23,000) per year.  The current culture of organized crime, high levels of poverty and the exploitation of migrants particularly in the agriculture realm are a growing phenomenon. As a result marginalized and vulnerable refugees are being pushed further and further to the back pages of Italian newspapers given the current European Financial crisis. According to the Rome based office of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to find gainful employment, migrants have no choice other than to accept miserable pay, poor living conditions and exclusion from the surrounding community.  The use of low-cost labour, illegal recruitment, the denial of acceptable living conditions and the lack of access to medical care are all known and tolerated; national and local institutions turn a blind eye to the massive exploitation of foreigners in the agricultural sector in the south because their labor is required to sustain local economies. As the Italian financial crisis deepens the fate of these invisible workers grown even dimmer.

Fulvia Antonelli, who jointly teaches a Spring Hill course on Immigration, is an activist and academic who spent last summer supporting the Libera Puglia NGO in the region who works hand-in-glove with immigrants protesting for basic rights. According to  Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), sixty five percent live in abandoned buildings, 21% have to share their mattress with one or more people and 53% sleep on the ground. Dr. Antonelli’s eyewitness account confirms the severity of the situation: “These migrants who are employed as seasonal workers live in deplorable sanitary conditions, in a state of extreme poverty and social exclusion. These conditions confirm the almost total lack of measures aimed at ensuring basic human rights.”

In February, Professors Antonelli and Buffatti will lead a group of Spring Hill College Italy Center students to Puglia with the aim of analyzing the situation that the region is facing on immigration, organized crime and refugees settlement. Students will meet representatives of Libera Puglia, the civil society association founded by a Father Luigi Ciotti in 1995 to fight mafia in Italy, as well as a group of refugees who live in a small village and are supported by the local parish. The visit will also incorporate opportunities to engage in the local culture and traditions.  Spring Hill students will not only meet with activists but have plans to cook meals together with refugees.  The weekend will culminate in a pizzica night which is a musical tradition that blends the sounds and stories of African, Eastern European and Italian music traditions– much like the back roads of current day Puglia.

Vittorio Buffatti is the Assistant Director of the Spring Hill College Italy Center
Fulvia Antonelli holds a doctorate degree in Anthropology and Immigration Studies from the University of Bologna


  1. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)  “A Season in Hell” (2008 Report)
  2. African refugees feared drowned off Tunisian coast (June 2, 1011)
  3. Fleeing North Africa and Landing in an Italian Limbo (March 30, 2011)

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