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The silent drama of Indian migrant farmers in Italy: ‘We are living a second hell on earth we never imagined’ October 6, 20162:51pm Italy is particularly affected by the Mediterranean migrant crisis. Picture: Aris Messinis Silvia Marchettinews.com.au AS THE bodies began to pile up on the wobbly train, they were simply thrown out of the carriage. When Rajinder Singh, a Sikh farmer from Punjab, decided to flee India, he never realised his journey would entail a treacherous six-month journey to reach Italy. After the train ride in which he crossed India with a bunch of other desperate refugees, he walked across Russia, Germany and France. When he finally reached Italy, he found himself in another “hell”, where he now lives in inhumane conditions and is exploited by cruel landlords linked to powerful local mafia clans. Today Rajinder, 42, is a farmer who lives inside a Sikh refugee camp south of Rome, in the fertile Agro Pontine plains where one of Italy’s largest Sikh communities resides. He works in the fields looking after the kiwi, melons and zucchini plantations for just 2 euros a day, bent on his knees under the scorching sun and without even a lunch break. “I paid so much for the journey to Italy (almost AU$15,000), I would have never thought of finding such a situation here, of living again in a nightmare. “My master hasn’t been paying me since four months. But I have no choice: I keep working 12 hours a day non-stop because that’s the only way to avoid feeling hunger at work”, Rajinder told news.com.au. Over 200,000 Sikh migrants reach Europe each year. Roughly 70,000 choose Italy as their final destination and their numbers are growing, with an annual 66 per cent average rise in incoming young Indians from Punjab. From faraway, Italy appears as El Dorado, but once these immigrants set foot on Italy’s shores. reality kicks-in, and it’s a monstrous one for many Sikhs. . The Sikh drama is just a snapshot of the bigger migrant picture but is symbolic of what happens to many refugees once they reach Europe and try to start a new life. Italy is currently being rocked by a severe immigration emergency and is the most battered of all European countries after migrant inflows in Greece recently slowed down. Since the start of the year, more than 131,000 migrants have landed on Italian shores, according to the UN refugee agency. More than 30,000 Sikh farmers are employed in agriculture and industrial livestock in the Agro Pontine plains, a former marshland dubbed today “Italy’s greenhouse” where mafia clans control prosperous rural markets. It’s thanks to Sikhs’ hard work that lands many fruits and veggies on Italian families’ tables as Italy faces a lack of native labourers who simply refuse to become farmers or shepherds for a miserable wage. Yet the majority of Sikhs in the area are going through their own inferno. Their “Italian lifestyle” is certainly not what they had imagined when they first hit the road fleeing their poor and wretched country in search of a brighter future in Italy. But not all are lucky when starting over a new life, many of them get to endure a second hell on earth. Their journey of hope isn’t realised if they fall into the hands of criminal groups, who also allegedly drug the migrants to force them to work more. Rajinder Singh, with the yellow shirt, stands with other Sikh farmers at a refugee camp south of Rome.Source:Supplied Sikh farmers live in cramped refugee camps where several families share a single 40 square meter room for which they must also pay up to 500 euros per month to cruel tenants. Others sleep in shacks out in the open on the plantations owned by landlords while the most desperate don’t even have a roof above their heads. To find work, they come knocking in vain at the door of land owners and must run for their lives when the dogs chase them away. Some are official, others are illegal Sikh migrants who have never filed asylum requests to Italian authorities, practically “ghosts” who are more easy to exploit. The lucky ones move around on a rusty bike constantly at the mercy of crazy drivers but most of them must walk up to 40km each day looking for a wage. “We’re not even given farming tools, we need to dig the watermelons and zucchini out with our bare hands and when I come back home at night at 10pm, dogs attack me along the road. Sometimes, drivers that pass by roll down the window and throw glass bottles at us as we ride on our bikes. Each day, our lives are at stake: cars run so fast, we could get easily killed any moment”, says Jagjit Singh. Rajinder, front, working in a greenhouse on the Agro Pontine Plains, bent on his knees plucking out radish.Source:Supplied The Sikh farmers, thanks to their familiarity with cows back in India, also look after the greyish buffaloes that graze the lakesides and lend a hand in making fresh cheese. If you visit the area, you can see at them work on the plantations even when it rains, dressed in white tunics and wearing their traditional red turban, with long moustaches and beards. Farmers’ stands rise along the streets where Sikh farmers serve clients. They live in a total state of submission. “I have witnessed these farmers call their employer ‘master’ and are forced to bow when he passes by, taking a step backward in a sign of fear and respect,” says local sociologist Marzo Omizzolo, runner of a local migrant support centre who faked himself as a refugee to infiltrate the plains’ rural business and report the ongoing exploitation. According to Omizzolo, other unscrupulous Sikhs have teamed up with the land owners and created a human smuggling network to recruit fellow Indian workers inside the so-called illegal “black labour market”. Sikhs are exploited not just in farms but also firms, where they are underpaid and work amid poor safety conditions. Several local steel industries pay their salaries late, or forget even to pay, so more and more Sikh workers have joined forces helped by Omizzolo’s organisation. They now stage regular strikes calling for more workers’ rights and higher wages. “All we want is to be treated with dignity and respect, we want to work here in Italy but have families to look after. We’re just asking to get fairly paid for the job we do each day”, says Gurmukh Sikh, head of the local Indian community. A handful of Italy’s Sikh migrant population.Source:Supplied — Silvia Marchetti is a Rome-based freelance reporter. She covers finance, economics, travel and culture for a wide range of media including Politico and CNN.