FLORENCE, Italy (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - On a hot summer morning, 20 young African men donned black gloves and bright orange vests before spreading out along a section of the Arno to collect bottles, food wrappers, and a lone abandoned shoe that littered the river’s south bank.
Although only a short walk from the tourist-clogged piazzas of the medieval Tuscan city of Florence, they worked in isolation, separating rubbish into bags for glass and plastic and paper, as part of volunteer scheme.
“It is better than staying home and doing nothing,” said Joseph Eraze, 20, of Nigeria, who has been living in an immigrant reception center in the town of Saltino, an hour’s drive from Florence, since arriving in Italy in July 2016.
Eraze and other recent arrivals to Italy participating in this community service scheme came to Italy as part of a wave of immigrants entering Europe from sub-Saharan Africa, risking their lives in crossing the Mediterranean Sea.
Frustrated at long waits while asylum applications are handled, many migrants have been more than happy to get involved in volunteer work but this has irked some critics who see it as either exploiting migrant labor or taking jobs from Italians.
According to an Aug. 18 update from the United Nation’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 97,000 immigrants have made the crossing to Italy so far this year. Almost 600,000 have arrived in Italy over the past four years.
More than 13,000 have died trying to make the crossing.
Despite the heat and lack of pay, the volunteers welcomed the activity as a break from the relentless waiting for word on their asylum requests, a process that can take more than a year.
During that time, migrants are housed in reception centers scattered across Italy. While authorities provide Italian lessons and some job training during this period, migrants do not have permission to work while their status is being decided.
Faced with growing anti-immigrant sentiment and a growing number of Italians viewing refugees as a burden, the Italian government has encouraged local authorities to find ways to involve migrants in volunteer projects to sow good will in communities where they are housed and to help their integration.
Interior Minister Marco Minniti even suggested earlier this year making community service a mandatory requirement for asylum seekers.
But not everyone has welcomed such schemes in a country with one of Europe’s highest youth unemployment rates, nudging 40 percent.
Some immigrant advocates and union officials have criticized the push for community service by migrants as a potentially exploitative labor practice and suggested it could even violate international norms on requests for asylum.
“If volunteer work is being used to somehow say that we’ll support your presence but you must do service for us, that’s wrong,” Giuseppe Massafra, a national secretary of the Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL), said in an interview.
While there is no official count of how many community service projects have been launched, local media has reported on similar cleanup projects in parks and roads in municipalities ranging from Ragusa in Sicily to San Pietro Avellana in the Molise region in central Italy to Campochiesa in Liguria.
Gianfranco Schiavone, vice president of ASGI, a research institute specializing in immigration law, questioned why migrants were asked to volunteer for public works projects when they could volunteer with established non-profit organizations.
Schiavone said community service should be an enriching experience that aids migrants’ integration into Italian society.
“If a bus picks them up, takes them to a place to pick up trash and then brings them back without interaction with other people, that is fake community service,” he said.
Organizers of the Arno project, however, said they have witnessed positive effects.
“When residents see a group of immigrants, their first reaction is to stay away, but their attitudes change when they understand what they’re doing,” said Marco Bottino, president of the Consorzio di Bonificaro 3 Medio Valdarno, a private entity that oversees flood management and other technical aspects of conservation of a central swath of the Arno.
“If they talk, Italians realize these are people with names and stories to tell.”
He said officials of the Tuscan regional government approached the consortium last year to create and manage a cleanup project for migrants living in reception centers in Tuscany. In the summer of 2016, some 40 migrants participated.
This year, the program was expanded to include about 200 migrants and cover nearly the length of the Arno, from Arezzo to Pisa. Groups of migrants are bused from various centers where they live to different locations along the river.
Bottino said the program included training sessions on workplace safety and recycling laws, giving participants knowledge that could be useful for future job searches.
As the young men carried out their work, filling about a dozen big plastics bags with refuse, they talked and joked among themselves but had no interaction with residents or tourists.
Eraze said he and the other volunteers had chosen to take part in the activity. In addition to being a distraction from his worries about the future, he said he also was happy to give back to his host country.
“We see what we can do for Italy, not just what Italy does for us,” Eraze said.
Another volunteer, 20-year-old Mark Tiuzee of Ghana, said he appreciated the camaraderie the community service offered and the opportunity to leave the small Tuscan hamlet of San Baronto, about an hour’s drive from Florence, where he has been living for the past 10 months.
“I look forward to these days, even if it means picking up rubbish,” Tiuzee said.
Reporting by Vera Haller, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith @BeeGoldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org