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​Is this a farm helping migrants or just a field of schemes?

September 13, 2016 at 6:35 PM EDT
It seemed like a rare positive story about the migrant crisis: African refugees, relocated to Sardinia from their war-torn countries, providing for themselves by farming. But when the NewsHour arrived at the farm, no workers were there. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant’s ensuing investigation was winding and, at times, hostile. Were there ever any farmers, or was something else going on?
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GWEN IFILL: But, first: The European Union has set aside nearly $630 million for Italy to cope with the thousands of migrants coming across the Mediterranean from Africa.

With so much public money available, opportunities to profit from the migrant crisis are substantial, as, it appears, is the potential for fraud.

In June, special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reported on the Italian mafia’s use of refugee reception centers in Sicily to cheat the state out of more than $4 billion. The E.U. is now working with the Italians to try to end that.

As part of that effort, on the Italian island of Sardinia, authorities are now checking into a scheme in which unused and neglected land was supposedly given to migrant African farmers so they could become self-sufficient.

From Platamona in Northern Sardinia, Malcolm Brabant and producer Alessandra Maggiorani report.

MALCOLM BRABANT: It’s just before sunrise. It’s the start of the working week. And we’re heading out to the land where these 50 or so African farmers are supposed to be working.

This is the time of the day when most farmers out in the Mediterranean are starting work because it’s cooler. They can get more done before the heat of the day really kicks in.

We have been told that these farmers work from Monday to Thursday, so let’s go and see if they’re there. In the late summer heat, crops need attention. But dawn came in Platamona came and went with no sign of activity.

Right, well, it’s just after 8:00. We have been waiting here for more than an hour. And it seems pretty clear that nobody is going to turn up. We’re going to go for breakfast because I have a feeling it’s going to be a long day. And then we’re going to come back afterwards to see if they are here. And if they’re not, we’re going to try and find them and see what’s going on.

We came back nearly two hours later. Nothing. At this small vineyard next to the African workers cooperative supposed location, we found a policeman and his father who didn’t wish to be identified.

FRANCO, Policeman (through translator): I live in Porto Torres and I go to Sassari for work, so I would have seen the migrants. And the old man you see down here is my father. And if he had seen something, he would have been alarmed and would have asked me, what’s going on?

GIOVANNI, Father (through translator): I would have noticed them. There’s no cultivation going on there and no livestock.

MALCOLM BRABANT: At another vineyard opposite the farm, we talked to an agricultural worker who’d known the owner’s family for decades. Here, people are wary. He didn’t wish to talk on camera, but insisted that there had been no sign of any migrants working.

When we started researching this story, it was being portrayed by the man organizing this cooperative as being a very positive story, that the African farmers who’d come from war-torn areas wanted to be able to support themselves and didn’t want to be reliant on the state.

But then we got here, and he stopped taking our calls. And it all got a little bit strange. We were constantly probing for more information. My colleague, Alessandra Maggiorani, an experienced freelance journalist and native Italian speaker who has worked with the “NewsHour” on many occasions.

ALESSANDRA MAGGIORANI, Journalist: I have just spoken with the president of the farmers association of this region. He was explaining that the people involved in this project have asked them for help to transfer their know-how, their knowledge, and their expertise in agriculture.

MALCOLM BRABANT: This connection potentially added more credibility to the project. Once we started asking questions, though, the union quickly distanced itself.

We’re outside the offices of the local farmers union, and the organization has made it clear that they don’t want to give us an on-camera interview. But we have spoken to a senior official who said that they were approached about this project. They liked it initially. They liked the fact that food produced by the Africans was supposed to be given to children at local schools or sold in local markets.

They wanted to investigate it further, but they weren’t given any documentation, and so they didn’t become officially involved. We continued looking into the project and its partners, landowner Luca Pintus, and a leading member of Sardinia’s immigrant community, Cheikh Diankha, who’s from Senegal and the head of several organizations involving integration.

Diankha’s company, Janas International, runs a reception center for migrants. And he based himself in one with a colorful history.

ALESSANDRA MAGGIORANI: The reception center is actually on the premises of the Kiss Kiss, a former disco, which had a very bad reputation. It was closed down for prostitution, and more than 10 people were arrested.

MALCOLM BRABANT: As our phone calls went unanswered, we paid a visit to Cheikh Diankha in his officer at the former Kiss Kiss disco.

ALESSANDRA MAGGIORANI (through translator): I have been trying to get in touch with you. I called you many times, and you’re not taking my calls.

CHEIKH DIANKHA, Janas International: Ah, OK, Alessandra.

ALESSANDRA MAGGIORANI: Yes, Alessandra.

MALCOLM BRABANT: I don’t understand. I just do not understand what’s going on here.

ALESSANDRA MAGGIORANI: OK. You have to ask permission before…

MALCOLM BRABANT: Yes, but we have come all this way to do a story about farming, and you — and we don’t see anything going on.

ALESSANDRA MAGGIORANI (through translator): We came all the way here because he had an appointment to go with migrants out into the fields.

CHEIKH DIANKHA (through translator): I didn’t vanish. I sent you the number of Luca Pintus.

ALESSANDRA MAGGIORANI (through translator): Pintus never replies on that number. I don’t think the number is active.

MALCOLM BRABANT: We then tracked down land owner, Luca Pintus, at his mother’s cafe in the main square of Sassari, a town in Northern Sardinia.

Pintus tried to assure us that the project was above board. He promised to show us all the relevant documentation, as well as the farmers at work.

This street in Sassari yielded more questions. We were invited to a smart address to meet Luca Pintus, along with a talented migrant clothes designer, as well as another director of Diankha’s company, and to see paperwork related to the farm project.

But the only one to turn up was Diankha’s colleague, Giovanni Rossi, who said he was an accountant.

GIOVANNI ROSSI, Accountant (through translator): You need to know that only authorized filming in allowed in Italy. So please lower your camera and wait in a decent way.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Rossi wanted us to look at their fashion work. We wanted to talk on the record about the farm.

GIOVANNI ROSSI (through translator): I believe you are smart, so you can listen to what I have to say.

ALESSANDRA MAGGIORANI: Let’s sit down and ask him questions.

GIOVANNI ROSSI (through translator): Alessandra, let’s sit down

MALCOLM BRABANT: No. No. No. No. No. No.

(CROSSTALK)

GIOVANNI ROSSI (through translator): No, a written interview. No, no. Go out, please.

MALCOLM BRABANT: OK. OK. We will go out.

Briefly, I was invited back into the room.

Where are all the farmers? Where are all the farmers?

We are trying to find the paper trail for this project. And we have come to this office on the outskirts of the town of Sassari, where they often deal in E.U. projects and funding. But they say that they have no record at all of this particular project, although they do say that there are other organizations who have money available.

Back at the former Kiss Kiss disco, a question for Cheikh Diankha.

So, I’m asking you, is this a scam?

CHEIKH DIANKHA (through translator): The cooperative isn’t standing yet. So how can we have got some money?

We haven’t taken nor received money from anyone. This has to be clear. Don’t go to the BBC and tell them that we get E.U. money. We don’t even know what the E.U. is. We don’t have any business with them. We have business with the farmers union in Sardinia.

And we have yet to receive a single euro. The money for the petrol to go there comes form our pockets. Is that clear? We haven’t taken money from the Italians or the E.U., and everyone should hear me on this.

MALCOLM BRABANT: After our meeting with Rossi, we came across Luca Pintus in Sassari’s main square.

LUCA PINTUS, Landowner (through translator): Giovanni, I have found the journalists in the square. If you want, I will put her on, so you can make an arrangement.

MALCOLM BRABANT: I just want to ask a simple question. When was the last time your land had farmers on it?

LUCA PINTUS (through translator): This morning, they are picking. They have to make a gift of it to the elderly.

ALESSANDRA MAGGIORANI (through translator): Do you mean in Platamona?

LUCA PINTUS (through translator): On the field in Platamona, 15 days ago. I’m not sure.

ALESSANDRA MAGGIORANI (through translator): On the basis of these projects, it is 32 euros per migrant?

LUCA PINTUS (through translator): Yes, at the reception centers. But I have nothing to do with the reception centers.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Pintus was clarifying that 32 euros a day per migrant wasn’t a subsidy for the farming project, but a standard fee paid by the state to Diankha’s company and other reception centers. It’s supposed to cover food and clothing for the 100 or so migrants at the former Kiss Kiss disco.

That’s potential income for his company of $3,600 a day.

LUCA PINTUS (through translator): No filming, no filming.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Or $1.3 million a year.

According to Luca Pintus, Cheikh Diankha and his colleague Giovanni Rossi plan to open a new refugee center.

LUCA PINTUS (through translator): Understand, I am the director. You mustn’t film. You mustn’t film. You mustn’t film. Put this in your head.

MALCOLM BRABANT: OK, fine. We’re going.

GIOVANNI ROSSI (through translator): Sorry. Why are you so incorrect?

ALESSANDRA MAGGIORANI: I’m saying that he’s finding excuses not to do the interview.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Yes.

So these farmers, do they exist? Do the farmers exist?

Luca Pintus insisted he wanted to fight racism and to help newcomers integrate in Sardinia.

Migrants find it hard to leave the island because most are barred from ferries to the mainland. While migrants are a moneymaking opportunity for some, many Sardinians are weary of those selling cheap goods on the beaches or begging.

But people hawking wares in supermarket car parks have little alternative, because a career in local agriculture doesn’t appear to be a realistic option.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Malcolm Brabant in Sardinia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Online, Malcolm offers the backstory of his peculiar reporting odyssey. That’s on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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