Police gathering evidence after a fire that destroyed a shack and killed a person in Borgo Mezzanone, near Foggia, Italy, June 12, 2020 | Photo: ANSA
Police gathering evidence after a fire that destroyed a shack and killed a person in Borgo Mezzanone, near Foggia, Italy, June 12, 2020 | Photo: ANSA

On June 12, a 37-year-old Senegalese migrant died in a fire in a migrant shanty town near Foggia, in the Puglia region of Italy. The fire broke out inside a shack in the migrant encampment of Borgo Mezzanone, a makeshift settlement near Foggia.

The flames enveloped the makeshift shelter which was located in an isolated area of the encampment. The man was the fourth victim of a fire reported in the shanty town over the past 18 months. Fires reported at the camp are almost always due to a short circuit caused by the numbers of illegal power hookups to the mains electricity or by sparks from fires lit by migrants to keep warm.

It is believed the victim is Mohamed Ben Ali, a Senegalese migrant, who had been living in an isolated area of the migrant shanty town of Borgo Mezzanone, located some 15 kilometers from the center of the nearby town of Foggia. He died in the morning of June 12 when a fire broke out inside his wooden shack. He was 37.

Mohammed, or Bayfall, as he was known among friends at the shanty town, which is built on the runway of a former military airport, is the latest victim caused by a fire in a shanty town that hosts over 1,500 immigrants who mainly work as farmhands in the area.

The fires that quickly destroy shacks built from wood, plastic and metal are mainly caused by short circuits due to the massive presence of illegal power hookups, gas canisters or sparks from fires lit by migrants to keep warm.

Fourth victim of a fire in 18 months

The Senegalese migrant was described by many residents as "a very good person." Thierno, a spokesperson for migrants living at the camp, told ANSA that the victim had given him a tam tam (an African drum) as a gift. "He worked as a farmhand but often sold bracelets and necklaces on the street," he said.

According to the Foggia chapter of the union FLAI CGIL, which represents farmworkers, Mohamed had recently said he intended to report his employer. The fire destroyed everything, including his personal belongings, which is why investigators have not formally identified him as the victim yet.

Firefighters stationed at a center for asylum seekers situated next to the shanty town were the first to see the fire and rush to the scene. Rescuers recovered a stove that could have caused the fire. Mohamed is the fourth migrant to die in a fire in Borgo Mezzanone over the past 18 months.

On February 4, an African woman died when a gas canister exploded in her shack. In April last year, a 26-year-old Gambian man died in a fire caused by an illegal power hookup. And on November 1, 2018, another young African lost his life in a devastating fire.

'It is unacceptable to have invisible women and men'

Authorities coordinated by the prefecture are working to progressively dismantle the illegal encampment. During the course of four separate operations between February and July last year, 74 shacks were demolished and 130 migrants evacuated. However, operations have been suspended for over a year.

After this latest death, migrant rights groups and unions have asked authorities to intervene to protect workers. "It is no longer acceptable that there are women and men in our country who are invisible, who live in obscene conditions, enclosed in ghettos," said the minister for agricultural policies, Teresa Bellanova.

"For this reason, the law on regularization is important: it returns dignity to foreign workers with no papers, allowing them to be seen as human beings with an identity and the possibility of living and working legally in Italy. Let's all strive to make it work," the minister said, referring to legislation approved last month to regularize migrant farm workers, home helps and carers.

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