ROME - Thousands of migrants are being lured to Italy with false promises of work and forced to live in conditions akin to slavery, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said Tuesday.
In a study of a migrant camp near the town of San Nicola Varco, 100 km (63 miles) south of Naples, IOM officials found some 1,200 migrants squatting in abandoned buildings without water and electricity, eking a living among piles of rubbish.
The young men, most of them from Morocco, were being paid between 15 and 25 euros ($21 and $35) for a 12-hour day laboring in nearby greenhouses and fields, without work contracts. Their employers often charged them for basics like transport and water, in the sweltering summer temperatures of southern Italy.
"The humanitarian emergency has become serious because they are living in conditions that are unsustainable," said Flavio Di Giacomo, spokesman for the IOM in Italy. "The salaries are well below the minimum. It is a kind of slavery."
Di Giacomo said that San Nicola Varco is one of the largest migrant settlements, but there are many more across southern Italy and even in the more prosperous north.
"We're talking about many thousands of immigrants in total."
Many of the migrants had paid up to 8,000 euros per person to a middle-man in their home country for the promise of a seasonal contract in Italy, the OIM said.
"Once in Italy, the migrants found that their employer had disappeared or just refused to employ them. Without a legal work permit, many fell into exploitation," said Peter Schatzer, regional representative for the IOM in Rome.
Each year, Italy sets a quota for the number of migrant workers allowed to enter the country as seasonal workers for its large agricultural sector.
The IOM said illegal labor, especially in the agricultural sector, is a widespread phenomenon in Italy with official statistics showing it accounts for between 15.9 percent and 17.6 percent of gross domestic product.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was elected by a landslide last year with a mandate to crack down on illegal immigration and rising crime, which many Italians blame on immigrants.
His government has clashed with the UN refugee agency UNHCR over a deal which allows Italy to return to Libya boats of would-be illegal migrants intercepted in the Mediterranean.
(Reporting by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Ron Askew)