On what used to be a vast complex of illegally built apartment blocks and holiday homes on the Mediterranean shore, Castel Volturno is today a run-down no-man’s-land stretching along Italy’s ancient Via Domiziana coastal road in the southern Campania region.
Gutted houses, bars and pizzerias sit alongside abandoned restaurants and small businesses run by Italians and Africans alike, as well as a handful of Christian churches and a few Islamic centres.
Here, life unfolds along the busy dual carriageway, which bisects the city for some 30 kilometres (18 miles), and where the Neapolitan Camorra and the Nigerian mafia have been plying their business for decades, mostly busying themselves with drug trafficking and prostitution.
But alongside the mobsters, several thousand impoverished locals and migrants make up the social texture of Castel Volturno, where the coronavirus pandemic has further exposed the state of emergency in which its denizens live – even in “ordinary” times.
The city has clearly seen better days, but it now counts about 25,000 inhabitants, of which 5,000 are registered migrants and an estimated 15,000 are undocumented, mostly hailing from West African countries including Nigeria and Ghana, say officials. So far, the town has recorded a dozen COVID-19 cases and one death, and that is only among the Italian population, authorities say. The Campania region has registered more than 3,400 infections.
Under Italy’s lockdown, Castel Volturno’s battered streets are deserted, with only a few sporadic gatherings near post offices, relegating the struggle for the survival of its most vulnerable citizens to within the four walls of their homes.
Over the years, paltry rents for run-down houses, which are often paid to local landlords under the table, have made Castel Volturno a haven for destitute migrants in search of temporary shelter upon their arrival in Italy. Other migrants call it home instead, hustling a daily living, especially in the informal agricultural and construction sectors.
“National laws were deliberated in such a way over the past decades to relegate these people to the margins of society and criminalise them,” says Fatima Maiga, a member of aid group Italiani Senza Cittadinanza (Italians Without Citizenship). “Migrants have stayed in southern Italy, and especially in places like Castel Volturno, because the area offers them a chance to escape checks.”