Into the fire – immigration, brutality and rape

By Emanuele Comi

Illegal immigrants carry incredible personal stories. In Italy their estimated number is up to 750,000 – a quarter of all immigrants living in the country. Natalia – a Bolivian woman in her mid-twenties – was one of them. She lived with her family and the child she bore as a result of sexual abuse she suffered as a teenager in extreme poverty. Like many others, she borrowed money to escape, with the hope of repaying it as soon as she got a job overseas. “To enter Italy was easy. You just needed a valid passport and said you wanted to visit Italy,” she said.

Illegal immigration in Italy is often linked to boats arriving at the country’s southern coasts, crowded with desperate people coming from different parts of Africa. But Natalia is an ‘overstayer’. According to the government, 64 percent of illegal immigrants in 2006 were overstayers, while just 13 percent came illegally by boat.

Natalia landed in Milan on March 27th, 2007. Italy, a greying society, bursts with opportunities for paid elderly care. Hiring a live-in caretaker, or badante, is a more attractive option for elderly care than a hospice. The supply of cheap labour willing to be caretakers is overwhelming, and the impact on elderly life is milder as badanti offer 24 hour assistance at home; as a caretaker, a badante has no working hours, and must provide the person in care with all the assistance they require.

For Natalia, the mirage of a golden place filled with job opportunities was soon dispelled. Jobs were not difficult to find at first, but they were disappearing quickly as the elderly people under her care were either sent to a hospice or died.

When she finally managed to find a more stable position as a badante, the money – €600 a month – was not enough. She had incurred a large debt to get into the country, and a family back home who needed her help. Natalia was determined to find a better-paid job, but this proved harder than expected. After failing to find any job openings in the Milan area, she decided to go to Modena, a small city 120 miles down south, as a last resort.

Soon the money ran out and Natalia had no place to stay. She slept on the street, wherever she could find shelter, for two endless nights. The suspicion of the town’s people towards her, even from her compatriots, caused her enormous distress. “No one trusted me,” she said.

Four months later, when the despair had become overwhelming, Natalia finally received a job offer in Lodi, a small city about half an hour from Milan. The pay was good – €900 a month – and she got Saturday afternoons and Sundays off. Her job was to take care of the elderly mother of a single man, a well-known professional in the town – ‘Pietro’. Both shared a flat together. The job was tough but Natalia could enjoy her free weekends.

Although the deal was agreed by both parties, Natalia did not receive her first pay cheque on its due date at the end of August 2008. Hoping that Pietro had unintentionally forgotten about the payment, she left it for a few days.

The next Monday morning, Pietro went to work as usual. Over lunch that day, Natalia brought up the problem with him, and he apologised and said he would pay her the next morning. This was the first of a string of broken promises.

As a result of Natalia’s demands, the following Saturday, 6th September, Pietro pulled a €50 note out of his pocket. “I can give you this for now,” he said. She refused the money at first, but then took it and sent it to her daughter in Bolivia.

September passed and nothing else happened. When Natalia’s family asked about the money, she could not find the words to explain. Exhausted by the empty promises, Natalia she the best thing to do was to prepare her luggage and leave.

But Pietro reacted angrily. As soon as Natalia told him she was going to leave he erupted, punching her in the face and beating her so badly she could not get up off the ground. “You are not going anywhere! Do you understand?” he shouted and confiscated her keys, her mobile phone and her passport, which was the sole document that could prove her identity.

Without her phone, the flat was a prison. Pietro then started blackmailing her by pretending to report her to the police whenever she started crying. He would pick up the phone and make a mock call to the police station. “Who do you think they are going to believe?” he used to tell her. In the end, after several attempts to reach help, Natalia managed to talk to Pietro’s brother, who discussed the matter with Pietro.

But instead of improving the situation, this caused another explosion of anger in Pietro who, in a fit of rage, raped her shortly afterwards.

At the beginning of 2009, while Pietro was out of sight, Natalia managed to call the police. Even with the police on their way, Pietro tried to abuse her again. His mother, having figured out what was happening, started screaming at him to stop. Natalia was kicked out of the house, but when the police arrived she was taken to the station because she did not hold a valid residential permit. While the officer involved initially believed her story, the police chief ordered her removal to Bologna’s so-called Centre of Identification and Expulsion (CIE).

These centres temporarily accommodate illegal immigrants caught by the police before they are eventually sent back to their own countries, but the process of identification can take a long time. A national law has recently increased the maximum stay at a CIE to 180 days for immigrants without a valid residential permit, after which the police have to release them. At the time of Natalia’s stay at the CIE, the maximum duration was 60 days. Luckily – on request of an organisation that works within the CIE – she was sent to the Modena-based women’s rights NGO Trama di Terre.

Natalia’s allegations of mistreatment by Pietro were referred to a judge, who believed her account and decided to press charges against her former employer. Pietro is now awaiting trial for rape, blackmail and violence; Natalia’s residential permit has been extended for a year to allow her to testify. She is currently working as a badante in a town near Imola in northern Italy, but she will be sent back to Bolivia after Pietro’s trial ends.

Natalia’s story is not an isolated case, but they seldom make the news. Tiziana Del Pra, the chairwoman of Trama di Terre, said she had been contacted by “hundreds” of badanti who were exploited or blackmailed as illegal immigrants.

Nevertheless, caretakers did recently come to the attention of the media, but for a different reason. According to the national paper Il Corriere della Sera, weddings between elderly men and badanti in Milan have “boomed”. According to the newspaper, there were 1,645 marriages between Italian men and “a more-than-10-years-younger foreigner” in 2008.

However, as Daniele Barbieri, a journalist for the left-wing social affairs magazine Carta, said: “Although this phenomenon [marriages between badanti and elderly people] surely exists and has some statistical worthiness, it is absolutely marginal compared to the unfortunate tens of thousands of houses where women, without documents and in conditions of extreme poverty, are victims of blackmail by their employers.”

The real names of Natalia and Pietro have been changed for this article

Pubblicato sul sito:


Associazione Trama di Terre Onlus

Via Aldrovandi, 31, 40026 Imola (Bologna)

Phone: 0542 28912

Fax: 0542 067566