Beyond the refugee crisis

The last time I travelled in Europe reporting on the experiences of refugees and migrants was 2013. I met men, women and children from around the world: from Eritrea, Sudan, Afghanistan and Vietnam. Most languished without papers in camps and communities, often destitute, trying to regularize their status, while the EU scratched its head deciding how to deal with them. Two years later, more than one million people reached Europe by sea. Many fleeing Syria. The continent was thrown into crisis. If the system had been unable to cope before, I wondered, how would it cope now with a million new arrivals? In August, I visited Sicily to find out.


 

There will be migrants in search of better lives; there will be refugees, fleeing death and persecution; and there will be a huge grey area in the middle, growing all the time, where people move because of poverty, because they have been driven to the margins of life by ethnic tensions, or because a new damn has flooded their village.

From ‘Human Cargo’ by Caroline Moorhead

Fatima* left Libya at night.

The men loading the boat were reluctant to let her board, they knew her as an activist and expected her to cause trouble. Small in stature, but commanding, Fatima handed over 1,000 Libyan dinar (about US$711) and took her place on the wooden vessel. She looked around her and guessed there were around 100 other people packed onto the boat. They travelled light, no luggage and in most cases carrying only the clothes on their backs. Fatima had left everything behind – her passport, even her teaching certificates. They told her, you can’t take anything on the boat. At the time she didn’t question it, but later she berated herself. Leaving the certificates hurt the most. But here she was. Everyday people went to the beach and disappeared. Her pregnant neighbour Molly was one, and she had drowned. Fatima began to pray.

Sunset over the port of Tripoli by Weisserstier

Sunset over the port of Tripoli. Photo by Weisserstier

Fatima is one of more than 150,000 people who landed in Italy last year.

They travelled in wooden boats unfit for the rough Mediterranean Sea. A large number had at some point left Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and the Gambia. A handful were from Iraq, Morocco, Mali, Pakistan and other places.

Europe’s refugee crisis dominated headlines in 2015 and spawned a series of European Union emergency summits. But Fatima’s story, and the stories of people like her, was never on the agenda. More than one million refugees and migrants entered Europe in the past 12 months, 48% of them were from Syria and most travelled through the Aegean Sea. The men, women and children in Italy make up just a fraction of that number, and though some are Syrians travelling from Egypt and Libya, most are from sub-Saharan African countries; they receive a less sympathetic press.

When I last visited in 2013 and before that in 2011, I met people from Afghanistan on their second trip back to Europe having been deported from the UK, a dozen Eritrean women in a camp on isolated farmland, exhausted men from Sudan who had been waiting years to find a way into the UK, a silent tent of Vietnamese people on the edge of Dunkirk. If the system of managing people without papers in the European Union still hasn’t accommodated them, how could it support more than a million new arrivals?

 

There is a large camp for migrants at Città Giardino, a small town consisting mostly of building sites, office blocks and apartments painted cheerful yellows, pinks, blues and peaches.

The garden city is a new town in ancient Syracuse and lacks the imposing grandeur of neighbouring towns adorned in baroque architecture and black lava. It feels isolated, forgotten. This is a theme across Europe; build immigration camps in remote, often inaccessible places. Journalists and members of the public must apply for permission to enter the camp Città Giardino, which can take months.  My request, made in person in August last year, is still pending.

The camp is set in a sleepy neighbourhood and looks like an old school building, but it’s heavily guarded and surrounded by high brick walls. Outside in the courtyard Carabinieri officers sit on low chairs playing cards with a group of small African children. Beyond that two Guardia di Finanza officers, a public police service in Italy, sit behind a reception desk. After being turned away at the gates by armed police on my first visit, I try again and get this far. The police officer, who is also the receptionist, is apologetic but says I’ll need permission to enter through the locked doors behind him, which lead to the living quarters. Despite the difficulties of getting in, the migrants and refugees held here can come and go freely. A friendly young woman with bright red and gold hair falling down her back in thick braids stops to chat on her way back into the camp. Her name is Anabelle and she looks like a student in a smart white shirt and jeans. She arrived in a boat from Libya a couple of months ago. She lived with her uncle in Libya and decided to leave the country when he was killed and her own life was threatened. Anabelle likes the camp. Without prompting she says, ‘I’m not like the other women. They go out with men, maybe for money. I want to go to school in Sicily.’ Anabelle thinks the camp’s manager is kind and will agree to let me and another journalist enter the camp and speak to her friends. She disappears behind the locked gate, promising to return with a response. I never see her again.

The next day, whilst looking for Anabelle, I meet Fatima. She sits on a low brick wall behind the camp, chatting with a cluster of young women from all over Africa. They’re dressed casually in jeans and T-shirts, but their hair is painstakingly straightened and styled, and their make-up is meticulous. They wouldn’t look out of place in a hip bar in Lagos or a stylish London club. Except for Fatima, whose hair is cropped short and who has an air of maturity about her. They are all waiting for the infrequent bus into town. Fatima’s authority within the group is immediately obvious. When I say I’m researching the experiences of women migrating to Europe, the others look shyly at their feet, but Fatima’s face brightens and words tumble forth in precise clear English.

‘I too want to do work for women and children,’ she says.

She’d arrived at the centre in July and was told she would be there two weeks. That was two months ago. Since then she’d grown concerned about the plight of other women held at the camp. ‘There are a lot of women who want to work. It’s not easy for these women. It’s not easy to split from those men,’ she says.

‘Which men?’ I ask.

‘Unexpected husbands,’ she says.

‘Unexpected husbands?’

‘They say, “You have an affair with me, you quickly have your documents.” It’s a trick. A strange man, you don’t even know is behaving anyhow. He can just come round to you and explain, we will get to Europe our documents will be so easy; this is trash.’

‘Has this happened to you?’

Her eyes widen. ‘No, I don’t allow this to happen to me. I am a learned person. I am an English teacher in Libya. I understand things, I read the news.’

Perhaps it’s this confidence that leads many of the other women at the camp to confide in her. ‘They say, “Aunty, aunty help me please. Help me get out of this situation.”’ When a UNHCR inspector visited the camp, the manager called Fatima to speak to them about her concerns, but she isn’t convinced this will lead to anything.

‘I have heard a lot of cases. One day if God should permit me, I will help people out of this. They are suffering. A little girl bound to big men. I am thinking, to see if I can find a solution. Not just to talk to you. I want to do something to help people.’

 

The clandestine path from North Africa to southern Europe by sea is well travelled.

From the mid-1990s numbers grew significantly and eventually sub-Saharan Africans would outnumber the Moroccans and Algerians who once crossed the sea in small fishing boats. Crossings peaked in 2006, when 24,000 migrants arrived in the Canary Islands. That same year more than 10,000 people arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Lampedusa: the Italian island is closer to Africa than Europe

Lampedusa

In a paper published in 2006, migration expert Hein de Haas writes of the complex geopolitics across the Sahel region and West Africa, and the aggressive externalization of European Union borders, and how both influenced migration routes. Interesting too is how the notion of borders in the region has changed through time. ‘It was only with the advent of colonialism, which drew its borders where there had been none and created modern states, that trans-Saharan mobility and trade collapsed. However, soon after independence, the foundations were laid for the contemporary trans-Saharan migrant system,’ he writes.

Up to the last migrant crisis and long before it, war and economic decline drove people from across sub-Saharan Africa north, mostly to work in wealthier countries such as Libya and Egypt. During his ‘pan-Africa’ period, Colonel Gaddafi invited sub-Saharan African workers to Libya, establishing a migration pattern that existed up until his death. These migrants could earn more than if they stayed home, though a drawback was overt racism and discrimination. After a wave of anti-migrant violence in Libya in 2000, Gaddafi adopted a tough (if inconsistent) anti-migrant stance to appease disgruntled Libyans. This involved random mass deportations and strict controls of migrants’ rights, policies that happened to help his burgeoning relationship with Europe. Right up until NATO launched airstrikes in 2011, Gaddafi collaborated with Italy to keep Europe’s borders sealed against migrant workers and asylum seekers travelling through Libya.

Gaddafi collaborated with Italy to keep Europe’s borders sealed against migrant workers and asylum seekers

Concurrently, the European Union was structuring an area of ‘freedom, justice and security’, banishing internal borders while securing external ones. The European Council came together at Tampere in 1999 and agreed that the right to move freely should be extended to non-EU citizens granted asylum. To that end they pledged to create a common European asylum system underpinned by the principles of the Geneva Convention. The system would respect the right to seek asylum and ensure ‘nobody is sent back to persecution’.

This new system would also lead the fight against ‘illegal immigration’, which entailed heavy policing at Europe’s borders and the stopping of migrant journeys in transit countries, before they reached the continent. (There was no allowance for the fact that a transit country might be a destination place for some, where there might be more employment than back in poorer countries left behind, or that migratory journeys are never fixed and dependent on cash flow. Conversely, the emerging body of asylum and immigration guidance assumed that an asylum seeker was in fact an irregular migrant. Unless they reached EU soil.) Various readmission agreements were made with Morocco, Libya, Tunisia and other African governments. These countries received funds to finance mass deportations and often created hostile environments for foreign nationals. In 2005, between 200 and 500 sub-Saharan Africans tried to climb a six-mile border fence between Morocco and Melilla, and were shot at by border police. Five people were killed. Spain blamed Moroccan police for the deaths saying its guards fired only rubber bullets and teargas. Many were injured in the crush. The same year, the EU created Frontex, which began patrolling the Canary Islands in order to ‘intercept’ potential migrants. With EU support Gaddafi built detention camps for irregular migrants where many were detained in inhumane and degrading conditions.

In March of that year after NATO’s intervention in Libya, a decade of push-back, keep-out, border policy began to fall apart

By the time of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions in 2011, the number of people crossing the Mediterranean had fallen dramatically compared to the peak of 2006. On the island of Lampedusa, the large reception centre for migrants, once packed with thousands of people, was empty and derelict. Frontex had turned its focus to the land border between Greece and Turkey, where 90% of all irregular migrants entered the European Union at that time.

But in 2011, men, women and children fleeing the violent aftermath of revolution once again began to risk the dangerous boat journeys across sea in the tens of thousands. In March of that year after NATO’s intervention in Libya, a decade of push-back, keep-out, border policy began to fall apart. Relying on Europe’s fear of migrants and sub-Saharan African refugees, Gaddafi relinquished his role as an EU border policeman. He opened the borders and let people travel freely (still risking their lives by sea) to Europe. Many black Africans now in Europe say they were rounded up and packed into boats against their will.

Against this historical backdrop Fatima lived and worked in Libya. From the chaos of this history and her own complicated past, she sailed towards a new, unfolding crisis, driven by a myriad of factors but partly sown in what had gone before at Europe’s borders.

 

Fatima’s boat spent several days at sea before it was rescued by a German rescue ship.

Few people reach Europe this way without help from coastguards or other vessels. The boats are flimsy and packed to bursting with terrified people. Any movement can cause a boat to capsize, so everyone lies still while people vomit and pray. Even on the sturdier crafts, which cost more, food and water runs out after a couple of days. Most spend days drifting at sea, piloted by inexperienced captains, the passengers sick, cold and hungry. Last year alone 3,770 people are reported to have drowned. But official figures are likely to be an underestimate. A consortium of European data journalists has created a data sheet to monitor the deaths of people migrating to Europe. Given the secrecy of the journeys, there’s no official headcount on departure when people leave Libya or Egypt, only on arrival at ports in Italy; what happens in between is vague. Sometimes entire boats disappear. It took a few of these tragedies before European countries banded together to implement a rescue mission. Early in 2011 a boat carrying around 60 Afghan refugees sunk in the Aegean Sea and a year after that around 60 people, mostly from Syria, died after their boat capsized in the same stretch of ocean. Another boat off the coast of Lampedusa overturned in April 2011: around 200 people drowned.

In September 2011, Thomas Hammarberg, then Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, wrote a report urging Italy to do more to rescue unseaworthy boats leaving Libya. He refers to a specific incident where a boat carrying 72 men, women and children was left adrift for two weeks, even though authorities in Italy and Malta knew about their plight, as did NATO ships in the vicinity. In that tragedy 61 people died. Hammarberg wrote: ‘…the Commissioner finds it difficult to accept that people in distress at sea can face death in one of the busiest areas of the Mediterranean, especially now with the large numbers of military and other vessels in the area.’

Italy was shocked into action when a 20-metre boat carrying around 500 people, many of them women, overturned just a few miles from the shores of Lampedusa in September 2013. More than 300 people died. Local Italians mourned the dead and the Pope chastised the world’s indifference.boatnoto2

A few days later Italy launched Mare Nostrum (Our Sea), a multimillion euro search and rescue mission with five naval ships, helicopters, five aircraft and two submarines. According to the Guardian newspaper, in the year of its operation it saved more than 100,000 lives. In October 2014 Mare Nostrum was replaced by a much smaller mission called Operation Triton, led by Frontex, with support from 21 EU states, albeit reluctantly. Britain’s then foreign office minister Baroness Anelay wrote: ‘We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. We believe that they create an unintended “pull factor”, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths.’

The people the minister and her government feared were those fleeing Syria as the war worsened there. Many had left behind deteriorating conditions in refugee camps in the region. Others were fleeing continued violence in Egypt as power changed hands for the second time since the toppling of the dictatorship in 2011. Migrant workers and refugees from places like Sudan and Eritrea living in Libya, fled racist attacks and the violent disorder following the collapse of the coalition government in the country. The civil war in Mali and skirmishes across the Sahel drove more West Africans to Libya, and then, when that government collapsed, they got into boats.

Britain relented and has since joined Triton, which focuses less on search and rescue, and more on border control and tackling ‘smugglers’ and criminal activity. Even with Operation Triton, there were nearly 4,000 deaths last year including three large capsized boats carrying more than 200 people (and dozens carrying smaller numbers). The worst sinking was in April and carried at least 700 people with only 28 survivors.

 

The week after I arrive in Sicily late in August 2015, 50 bodies wash up on the Sicilian coast close to Augusta, a tiny islet set against the handsome backdrop of the Ionian Sea with views of Mount Etna on clear days.

I stay with a close friend and her mother, an active woman in her seventies who played a huge role in feeding and collecting clothes for newly arrived refugees during the crisis of 2013. Angela, my friend’s mother, does wondrous things with some olive oil, a few tomatoes, aubergines and the herbs that seem to flourish on every spare patch of green in this fertile part of Sicily. The food draws family and friends daily, and without fail the conversation always turns to the refugee crisis. The general view is that the crisis is not an isolated thing, they see connections with Augusta’s politics, the difficulty for young people finding work, pollution, poverty, gay rights, gender equality. Augusta is not a prosperous place and the 35,000 inhabitants are reliant on the navy and the local petrochemical factory for work. For five years the town was managed by an emergency commission. ‘The problem in Italy,’ says my friend Dany, ‘is that emergencies last for years. We had an emergency commission for five years. The reason is that the previous mayor was fired because of his involvement with the mafia.’

The problem in Italy is that emergencies last for years

As you drive off the main motorway down into Augusta, the olive groves disappear and in the distance a giant maze of pipes and metal cylinders overshadows the town. This is the petrochemical factory, which pumps out pungent fumes into the air. Augusta locals travel to neighbouring towns to swim and sunbathe, rather than risk the toxic waste (alleged to come from the factory) that they say lurks beneath. On windy evenings, the air is thick with the stink of petrol. The battle against the international oil and gas companies is one Augusta has fought for decades, says Angelo, a 51-year-old salesman. ‘In any other part of the world you wouldn’t have petrochemical factories along the coast line of such a traumatised area. It is a seismic area, there are earthquakes. It’s so bad, it’s like the fourth world, not the third world,’ he says. But there is a sense of fatalism. Dany chips in, ‘We in Augusta can get angry, then we accept our fate.’ Angelo agrees:

‘People say, “I prefer to die of cancer rather than die of hunger.” If I work, I pay the price with my life in these facilities. People will never say no to jobs. It is the best job you can get in this area. It is guaranteed for life; you pass it on to your children. Most people work in this facility.’

Two years ago, Angelo joined the Five Star Movement, which he hopes will bring the change Augusta needs. In June last year, the Five Star Movement mayoral candidate Cettina Di Pietro, won in Augusta with 78% of the vote, an astounding victory for a radical, anti-establishment party in a conservative, religious area. But in many ways, Sicilians in Augusta had been self-organising since it welcomed the first boat of 60 survivors in September 2013. As with the pollution problems and unemployment, they expected little support from central government and received none.

Photo by Khadra Aden

In the centre of Augusta, just off the main high street, is a small mustard coloured apartment with a well-kept garden out front.

It’s called Talita Kum, a reference to a biblical story where Jesus raised a child from the dead. Talita Kum is a sort of halfway house for the poor, day-release prisoners, vulnerable young people or anyone who needs temporary assistance. It currently houses three young refugees. Every afternoon, my friend’s mother, Angela, runs homework sessions for young people and cooks for the inhabitants. One afternoon she takes to me the church opposite Talitha Kum to meet Salvatore Ponzio, a retired banker, grandfather, fisherman, and president of Caritas who coordinated the churches response to the boat arrivals. When I ask when the first refugees arrived he says, ‘Since 1991, in Lampedusa. The main difference is the number. Back then it was 8,000 a year, now it’s a day.’ Surprised, I bring him back to the current crisis.

‘When they arrived there was absolutely nothing,’ says Salvatore, a tall man with glasses, a shock of white hair and an earnest manner. Every day he would get in his car to collect the children from the port; at the time there was nowhere else for them to go. Locals pitched in with transport, food, clothes, taking children home for cooked meals. Augusta accommodated more than 3,000 unaccompanied minors, several families even adopted individual children. In one of the poorest parts of town, there’s a large sports tent or palazetto dello sport opposite a housing estate. It’s where the young people on the housing estate played basketball and other games. The refugee children were housed here. ‘There were six showers and hundreds of kids coming at a time. We provided clothes and other necessities.’

Soon the Carabinieri began bringing minors straight from the port to the palazetto dello sport. Often, young refugees would die after being rescued but before they reached the ports. ‘Many young boys arrived dead on the boats and we arranged their funerals. Nobody knew where they were from,’ says Salvatore.

Many young boys arrived dead on the boats and we arranged their funerals. Nobody knew where they were from

It was a chaotic set-up: the sports tent was overcrowded, children ran away and not a euro of the money that had started to trickle in from government went to those involved in the relief effort. Eventually the palazetto dello sport was closed, the children dispersed across Italy and a few hundred kept in Augusta and rehoused in a small, abandoned school, which had been closed because the structure of the building wasn’t safe. The prefettura stepped in to help, but the situation only worsened. ‘The green school was a last resort,’ says Salvatore, ‘It was a disaster. There were toilets outside. From a hygiene point of view, it was terrible.’

The green school closed last year and where once hundreds of young sub-Saharan African and Egyptian boys lounged about the streets of Augusta waiting, uncertain, now only one or two remain begging silently outside supermarkets or hiding in squats.

Our conversation turns to the Pope and his latest pronouncement that, everyone should take in one refugee. Dany, Angela and Salvatore slip into Italian fiercely debating the Pope’s comments and a solution to the crisis. A church volunteer, who has overheard our conversation, says loudly, we have been doing this for three years before the pope said anything.

boatnoto

Lest we forget: the remains of refugee boat on display at a church in Noto, Sicily

In Augusta it seems to me that there is a fierce pride in what happened from 2013 onwards. But lately, a sense of collective fatigue has taken over. They feel abandoned not just by the Italian government, but by the European Union.  More than 700,000 people arrived in the Aegean Sea, compared to the 140,000 or so in Sicily, and naturally how to deal with that crisis, and the heartrending chaos in places like Lesvos, Hungary and Calais, has occupied every EU summit on migration to date.

But here, people grow sick of simply watching, waiting as more dead people wash up on their beaches. They ask, how can it possibly continue? Who will stop it? After all, they have their own problems. Unemployment is high, prospects for the young are bleak, and though the half-built motorways and abandoned building projects might suggest a poorer county, the cost of living tallies with the rest of Europe. It’s expensive.

I have another conversation about the refugee crisis in a café in Augusta one morning, this time with a fellow journalist and a local Sicilian (a maritime enthusiast with excellent knowledge of the comings and goings of ships to Augusta), when a young man interrupts the conversation. He calls over to our table and says something in Italian. My colleague translates: Excuse me but I want to say something. The Vatican should stop telling us to help immigrants, it should move to Africa and help them there. I feel sorry for these poor people and I cry in my heart when they drown, but the Pope should go to Africa and help them there not lecture us.

A day later I watch the arrival of another boat carrying 131 people, mostly from Nigeria, Gambia and Senegal, at Augusta’s large industrial port.

 

Augusta’s port is a short drive from the mainland, off one of the motorways leading to the livelier, richer city of Catania.

There are checkpoints at the port’s entrance and a long drive to the waterside where officials and aid workers gather to meet the incoming ship. The air is hot and sticky, and smells of Sulphur. A Carabinieri police car pulls up, armed officers in dark flat caps and Ray Bans climb out. They are wearing stab vests and white masks cover the lower half of their faces. Red Cross volunteers set up a small tent with a desk just by the quayside. Two Frontex officers stand nearby and there are staff from Save the Children and the International Organization for Migration. There’s a couple of broadcast journalists from Russia, also wearing the white masks.

These arrivals are routine by now, but few people are willing to accommodate journalists’ questions. A stern Italian woman in jeans and crisp pink shirt seems to be in charge. Everyone defers to her and her answer is always a sharp no.

“Absolutely no contact with the migrants.” She barks the words at us. No interviews, no images of state officials. And no crossing the line, she says, pointing to a faded line on the harbour floor a few yards from where the ship is to land.

A young woman and an older man wearing matching white polo shirts and navy blue shorts are happy to talk, briefly. They work for Augusta’s Guardia Costiera. Their base is in the centre of town, but orders come from Rome. On an occasion like this, Rome will tell them, ‘There is a rescue boat coming in and you have to be at the port at this time’. As a large, grey ship approaches the dock, they both pull white protective suits over their uniforms. It’s a British ship, the HMS Protector (this was most likely one of its last ‘Triton’ missions) with the words ‘Border Force’ and a Union Jack painted across its side. Towards the rear of the ship a few dozen black people sit huddled and silent. The scattered officials, aid workers and police officers suddenly move into place as one. portaugusta4

A team of Italian officials, also wearing white protective suits and masks, board the ship. Two of them carry rifles. Someone starts hosing down the deck. After a few minutes the women and children are ushered to the front of the ship. The women’s expressions are glazed and five of the children are tiny, toddlers at most. Before leaving the ship they are screened by health ministry officials and then given a bottle of water and a pair of plastic sandals to wear. It takes another half hour or so to clear them. The men, mostly dressed in jeans and T-shirts, lean against the ship’s rails, waiting for instructions. The sun is high and too bright, there’s no shade in the port.

When the passengers are sitting silently on the dock, the children playing around them, the masked officials move in each with a distinct job to do.  The process is strictly managed by Ministry of Interior officials; people are passed from the Red Cross and local health organisations, who do the initial screenings, onto the charities like Save the Children and the International Organisation for Migration and others to help process migration status. Eight men are taken to one side, while the rest are slowly sent through to a large tent city at the far end of the dock where fingerprints are taken, further health checks conducted and claims for asylum made.

It’s an unsettling scene, unfolding slowly over three hours.

Julia, a young Italian volunteer for EMERGENCY, an Italian NGO with a mobile clinic stationed in the tent city at the far end of the harbour, has been based at the port in Augusta since June. Their work here and at the port in Catania is financed by the government. They provide basic healthcare and send people to hospital if necessary. Julia looks exhausted and worried. ‘A lot of the guys spent time in prison in Libya, so they have been beaten. We see people with leg injuries and foot injuries … they have been thrown from buildings. There are skin burns, scabies, burns from oil on the boats,’ she says. ‘On the boat there is a small engine, they don’t have good oil. Sometimes there are incidents, we don’t know what the exact details are but we see a lot of burns. People are really stuffed onto these boats, most sitting near the engine can be burned.’ portaugusta5

While Julia attends to a fainting woman and her fearful husband, the pink shirted woman appears and ejects all the journalists from the tent city. Suddenly, we need extra permission to be there. It’s surprising given that this is the most organised, functioning part of the process. People are rescued, treated and cared for, a direct response to unbearable images of death and drowning at sea. But from this point on coherence ends. At no other stage in the reception process do international, national and charitable bodies work alongside each other giving coordinated support, particularly where the people involved are considered migrants and not refugees. There’s no plan beyond the happy ending of rescue and survival, and as I discover, what happens next is a game of luck and chance.

 

The first question asked of everyone rescued from the sea when they disembark at the port is, ‘Do you want to seek asylum?’

It belies the limited options available to them, suggesting concern, an interest in their wants and needs. In reality it embodies the blind side in European Union asylum and immigration policy; which is that their best chance to stay is being granted some form of protection, if not full refugee status, then subsidiary protection granting limited leave to remain.

‘Do you want to seek asylum?’ If the answer is ‘no’ they face deportation. Or in some places, a spell in prison and then deportation for entering a country illegally. If a person has fled a conflict known to European governments or a regime widely acknowledged as ‘tyrannical’, then they have a better chance of receiving some form of asylum. In September last year the European Commission published a factsheet outlining its priorities in managing the refugee crisis. High on the list is the relocation of 120,000 people from Italy, Greece and Hungary (in addition to the Commission’s May 2015 proposal to relocate 40,000 people). But the only people eligible for this relocation scheme are those with a 75% chance of being granted asylum across the EU. This 75% figure is calculated by looking at the existing outcomes of asylum claims across Europe. So if the average number of Afghans granted asylum across the EU is 69%, then Afghans won’t qualify for the relocation scheme. Thus the relocation scheme only applies to people from Syria, Iraq and Eritrea.

Everyone else enters a kind of purgatory. A place of indefinite uncertainty and limited rights; though you are on European soil, you don’t exist as a person or a full European citizen, thus you have limited access to civil and social rights. You are both within and without of Europe’s borders. You become illegal according to EU border policy. An illegal immigrant or failed asylum seeker.

Fatima answered ‘yes’ to the asylum question. She tells me she’s a 38-year-old widow and mother of two from Nigeria who worked as a teacher in Libya for five years before she crossed the Mediterranean in July 2015. She is the kind of neighbour forever trying to enlist you in the local resident’s association; or the campaigner delivering leaflets or canvassing on a weekend; or the kindly stranger who will bravely chastise anti-social behaviour on a bus when everyone else stays silent. A woman who will always want to help.

Fatima moved to Libya for a mix of reasons, among them trouble at home. In Nigeria she’d been a teacher and also involved in community organizing, working with groups to improve women’s rights and campaigning against local oil spills, which damaged land and crops where she lived. She says the government and ‘richest in the area’ accused her of inciting violence. From then on she was ostracized and harassed, making it impossible to find work. ‘My house was vandalized. They started spoiling our things, out of it… I think they gunned down my husband. So…I was…. struggling, struggling, struggling…’

She dislikes dwelling on the past and raises it only because I push for details on the life she has left behind. ‘Come to Libya, there is work, we are told,’ she recalls.  And so Fatima chose to migrate to Libya where she could earn money to send back to Nigeria for her two children and their grandmother, visiting when she could afford to. In this Fatima is far from unusual. The World Bank predicts that remittance payments to poorer countries will reach $440bn by the end of 2015. Around $33bn of that will be sent to sub-Saharan Africa, two thirds of which goes to Nigeria. ‘If I have 100 dinar, 80 will be saved for my children,’ Fatima says. She shrugs nonchalantly, and smiling says: ‘They think you can’t do it without a man, but I can do it without a man.’

Initially her life in Libya was tough, but eventually Fatima who is fluent in Arabic, found work as a teacher. She secured her Iqama papers allowing her to work legally in the country. ‘Once you had this document, you have a chance of work,’ she says. ‘Gaddafi fought for us. When he saw that citizens treated us badly he didn’t like it.’ It was the fallen dictator who made it easier for people like her to get their Iqama.  But the 2011 civil war in Libya was catastrophic for any migrant in Libya. The country then was home to 2.5 million migrant workers from across Africa. They dominated Libya’s construction industry, and service, education and healthcare sectors. Many were refugees from places such as Sudan and Eritrea (though there is no opportunity to claim asylum in Libya, which isn’t a signatory to the Refugee Convention). They were particularly vulnerable when protests broke out. The narrative told by the international media was that Gaddafi had unleashed a band of sub-Saharan African mercenaries on the Libyan people; within Libya itself the large black African migrant population immediately fell under suspicion. Throughout the revolution, Amnesty International documented bloody human rights abuses committed by both the Gaddafi government and the rebels. In September 2011 it published shocking findings about the treatment of foreign nationals in Libya.

‘Refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in Libya lived under constant threat of being arrested and detained in appalling conditions for “migration-related offences”. Beatings, torture and other ill-treatment of refugees and migrants were rampant in detention centres and perpetrated with total impunity. Sub-Saharan Africans in particular were also vulnerable to exploitation and racist and xenophobic attacks by ordinary Libyans, fully aware that such abuses were tolerated by the authorities. Those responsible for such crimes were never held to account – facilitating the repetition of such abuses as evidenced in the ongoing conflict. As the unrest in Libya evolved into armed conflict in late February 2011, foreign nationals were vulnerable to indiscriminate attacks like other civilians. They were also targeted by both sides.

‘Widespread, but largely unfounded, reports that al-Gaddafi forces were relying on Sub-Saharan African mercenaries to fight the opposition put them at heightened risk in areas that fell under the control of the NTC. Sub-Saharan Africans in territories under Colonel al-Gaddafi’s control fared little better. Racist and xenophobic attacks, already frequent before the unrest, increased as a result of the breakdown of law and order and an escalation of xenophobic rhetoric by both sides of the conflict. In a speech on state television on 20 February, Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi blamed the uprising on foreign elements, and accused the opposition of using “Arab brothers and Africans” to create havoc in the country. This exposed foreign nationals to further risks of attack.’

That was in 2011. Now, the political crisis in the country has worsened with two main factions warring for power, while on the ground smaller militia fight for land. Meanwhile, skirmishes in the south of Libya between militiamen and local tribesman have weakened the borders and opened up routes for smuggling arms and people. This all makes it difficult for refugees and migrants. There are significant dangers in travelling back through the Sahara from the south of Libya; the fighting extends across the region making it nearly impossible to travel safely. And if they stay, there is the daily threat of violence. I hear many stories from recent arrivals to Sicily of the daily terror from ‘Asma boys’, gangs of young Libyans who terrorise dark-skinned migrants in public spaces.

Chiara Montaldo, an MSF coordinator working in Sicily, told me: ‘Before it was mainly the black Africans telling us about the violence but now everybody tells us, Syrians too. It is really dangerous to stay in Libya. At the landings we receive people with wounds, cuts, sometimes they have been shot. They tell us that sometimes they are in detention centres, a kind of prison where people are kept for many months.’ People are held in big warehouses before they are put on the boats, often with no food and they are beaten if they complain.

They say it is more dangerous to try to go back to their countries than to come here. So finally they come here but it is not their first choice

Back in 2011 when Gaddafi threatened to unleash boats on Europe, such stories were common, but Chiara says in recent months MSF doctors at the ports have heard more tales of people forced onto boats against their will. ‘Especially many people from West Africa who were in Libya for work and now they would like to go back to their countries. But they can’t. They say it is more dangerous to try to go back to their countries than to come here. So finally they come here but it is not their first choice. Others wanted to stay in Libya. Others for sure they are victims of trafficking. Some women for example.’

Geopolitics of the Sahara, Libya and beyond

Fatima stayed put initially despite all the dangers and found work teaching the children of the Libyan elite; most of their American teachers had fled the country. And for a while she was OK. Other migrants would come to her to help them find work. If one of her employers needed a cleaner she would find someone in need of a job.

But 2015 was a difficult year for Fatima. Her employers were public sector workers and hadn’t been paid for six months. They in turn didn’t pay her. She took extra work as a cleaner, doing this from early morning until 1pm and teaching the rest of the day. She could make about 400 dinar a month this way. And even then this was never guaranteed. ‘You could bargain a wage of 500 dinar and the employer would say, “I am not happy with this work take 250 dinar,’ she says.

Fatima grew tired. Tired of the bombs, tired of street harassment, tired of earning too little. When difficulties arose in the past she had moved, providing for her family at a distance. And so one night, once again she decided it was time to leave.

 

Rain falls in billowy sheets as we dash to the nearest place of shelter, a smart bistro a few streets from the main train station in Syracusa.

A few tables have been set with white porcelain plates, polished cutlery and thick cream napkins. We perch, dripping on stools by the counter and order coffee. ‘Let’s sit there,’ says Fatima, pointing to the carefully laid tables.

I chose an as yet unmade table, while Fatima rummages in the large, peeling once-white faux-leather handbag she carries with her. The bag, along with most of her clothes and the slip on pumps she wears, was scavenged from bins, items discarded in black bags among mounds of rubbish on the streets of the city. Thrift is survival.

Fatima wore a hijab in Libya, but in Sicily she is bareheaded and, ‘To cut down my expenses, I cut my hair. I make it low. Because I know that now it’s just food expenses I have [to cover] to be alright.’

‘You want to eat?’ she asks, pulling a small can of tuna and four slices of thin white bread wrapped in a paper towel from her bag. She grabs a white plate from another table, pulls open the tin and tips the pale meat onto the plate. ‘I didn’t have breakfast,’ she says mopping up tuna with the bread.

The food at the camp is poor, consisting mostly of stale bread and plain pasta, Fatima tells me. Imagine being in Italy and eating so badly, she muses. She’d rather not live at the camp, but says it isn’t too bad. ‘They are trying,’ she says with a smile. ‘We shouldn’t complain. I can tell you that if it was my government that is given this money, they will not do what they are doing here. They won’t. You know Nigerians, bad leaders. People pack the money into their pockets and give it to their children.’

Fatima has a good relationship with the camp manager and regularly petitions her about the quality of the food, the lack of Italian lessons and the snail’s pace at which her asylum application is being processed. The latter makes her anxious while the former helps keep her mind focused on something other than an uncertain future. Fatima still hasn’t been given a date for her interview with the Questura, after which she’ll find out if she can stay in Italy. It is two months since she arrived, two months with no work. Her only income is €2.50 a day, the sum given to everyone rescued and held in reception centres while asylum claims are processed. In some camps people are given cigarettes or phone cards instead of the €2.50, which allows them to make an extra euro or two by selling them on. Like others, Fatima sometimes chooses the €5 phone cards and sells them on for €3 or €4.

In Fatima’s situation, people can wait months and sometimes several years for a final decision on their migration status

In Fatima’s situation, people can wait months and sometimes several years for a final decision on their migration status. Being Nigerian could delay things even further. Of all the non-EU nationals entering Europe without papers, Nigerians are some of the least likely to receive sanctuary; according to data collected for the third quarter of 2015, 77% of Nigerian asylum applicants across the 28 EU member states were rejected in the first instance. The most welcoming place for them is in fact Italy, where they are more likely to be granted refugee status, subsidiary protection or permitted to stay for humanitarian reasons (though most – 2,660 – were rejected in the first instance in the third quarter of 2015).

Even if Fatima’s application is rejected, she has the option of taking up legal aid to make an appeal. At this stage a tribunal judge will decide on the case and most cases – around 70% – are successful. But the Italian Ministry of Interior almost always appeals this decision. The applicant then enters another layer of the Italian justice system (the court of appeal) and there’s another layer after that (the court of cassation) before all appeal rights are exhausted. By which time years will have passed.

Some people choose not to wait around. After boats of Syrian refugees arrive in Sicily, all their passengers can vanish from the camps within a few days. The same happens with Eritreans and Sudanese refugees. The Syrians might have enough money left to get them to richer European countries where they might have family or a better chance of work. Others follow well-trodden migratory paths with Italy merely a transit point on their journey. These onward expeditions aren’t always successful; the images of Syrian families destitute in both east and western European countries will long remain a stubborn stain on the continent’s humanitarian record. But the plight of Syrian refugees echoes the situation for thousands of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees, who for many years have been prevented from choosing where they apply for asylum and get stuck for years in places like Calais.

What hope then for Fatima?

She cannot afford to keep moving. Others I meet in her situation, temporarily without citizenship or nation, flail bewildered in the face of whatever foreign bureaucracy is resetting the start button on their lives. Without a clear cut claim to some form of humanitarian protection or refugee status, months and even years of uncertainty lie ahead. Depending on which European country a person chooses, this time might be spent in a purpose built camp for migrants and asylum seekers with token support and limited rights to work or study. The lucky few granted limited leave to remain give everyone else hope that with hard work, a dose of good fortune and a benevolent official they might be granted a form of citizenship.

For now, Fatima hopes. Like every migrant and refugee in Sicily, she speaks wistfully of London and Germany, but every morning she gets up early to practise her Italian. It’s partly because the camp’s Italian teachers rarely show up and partly because she wants to stay a few steps ahead of the children she has begun teaching there. Key to surviving the numbing uncertainty of the wait is to stay busy. Initially, the euphoria of having survived the Mediterranean sustains people. More than once Fatima says, her survival was God’s will and this means she has a responsibility; to be useful, to help and remain purposeful.

That’s not to say she isn’t anxious. Not just for herself – the deteriorating situation in Libya, the treatment of Syrians in Hungary, the women at her camp; these geopolitical and local events all occupy her thoughts.

‘The way I see people suffering, I wish I could be one of the people to help. One of the volunteers to speak to them,’ she says. ‘People are dying in the sea every day. I read in an Italian newspaper, they rescue one boat. Check your Italian newspaper today, they rescue 40. One girl as they rescue her, she gave birth in the boat. But there were more than 40 people on that boat.’

At the camp and in Libya Fatima witnessed women forced into relationships with men who promise protection or a better life and documents. The trafficking of women is also rife. Even on the boat, she says, one 28-year old woman was coerced into a relationship with a man who convinced her that she needed a husband to get papers. Now at the camp all they do is fight, but because they’ve made a joint asylum application they are must stay together or risk deportation.

Aid workers and Italian activists working with migrants and refugees arriving from the sea express the same fears. Chiara from MSF, tells me ‘We receive many women from Nigeria, who we suspect to be victim of trafficking. We receive a lot of Somalian women alone. This surprised me a lot. I was expecting them to come at least in families. At the landing it is difficult to talk because they don’t really trust you and it is difficult to talk. They are scared. Many of them tell us they have been raped and many are pregnant. So we follow them because many of them ask to terminate the pregnancy. Now we are following four women who landed recently – four of them are pregnant and four of them want to interrupt the pregnancies. Most of the time they come alone, sometimes they come with someone they call husbands but we have many doubts if it is real husband or not.’

The stories I also hear from other people at the docks or outside the camp are horrific. An Eritrean girl was raped and beaten by detention centre guards in Libya for three days. A man from the Gambia says his sister was raped and killed in the desert on route to Libya.

Salvatore, the Caritas volunteer I met in Augusta, tells me of a Nigerian girl tricked into thinking she was being given a job, trafficked from her home in Nigeria to Libya and eventually bought to Italy. Her passport was taken from her and she was raped. He describes seeing a small boat arrival of 20 Eritrean women. ‘They were all together and everybody had the impression that there was some kind of organisation looking after them.’

Salvatore adds, ‘The exploitation of women is a big problem.’

I ask him how such exploitation is dealt with at the reception centres and at the port, and by the charities and local groups working with people while their migration status is processed. He replies that women aren’t treated differently and there are no special structures for them.

Should there be? Women receive the same help as the men arriving, he says.

And what happened to the Eritrean women?

‘Within two days they vanished.’

 

Therese* leaps from her chair and pushes the large table in front of her onto its side.

It lands loudly causing everyone to start and rush towards her. She screams and shouts out in rapid French, pushing concerned hands away. Nothing soothes her. Pulling off the wraparound green cotton dress she’s wearing, Therese gestures wildly at her nearly naked body. Her face is contorted and covered in tears, her fury seems to be directed at one of the centre’s volunteers, a stocky young man with dark hair and a beard. He is bewildered and repeats, ‘I don’t understand. I asked you one question.’

No one else understands either. Therese has apparently had a friendly relationship with the young man, a local imam and volunteer at the centre. They got on well and he is one of the few locals who could speak French with her (though her Italian is good despite having only lived in Sicily for a year). Giovannella the warm, if officious, Italian woman in charge of the refuge, is shocked, and has to gather herself before rushing over to comfort Therese. Just moments before Therese was laughing and talking, finishing off her lunch of pasta and bread. She had cheerfully helped prepare lunch for about 20 people, covering two long tables with tablecloths covered in lime green pears and carefully placing a napkin and an upturned cup at each place. In one corner of the brightly lit hall, her 7-month old baby daughter gurgled, happily occupied as two of the young boys staying at the refuge fussed over her.

‘She never acts this way,’ says Giovanella quietly. ‘Maybe once or twice, but not as bad.’

Theresa is a 31-year old refugee from the Ivory Coast. Her boat landed in Sicily late in 2014. She worked first as a cleaner in Tunisia and then moved to Libya. Giovanella doesn’t know what happened in Libya, just that Therese’s daughter’s father is there and likely a Libyan man.

While Therese’s asylum application is being processed she and her daughter live at Casa delle Culture, a spacious building over three floors with a cultural space and beds for around 40 people. According to Giovanella it is the only project of its kind in Sicily dedicated to providing a safe space for single women arriving on the island. It also hosts children and unaccompanied minors. Casa delle Culture is part of a bigger project called Mediterranean Hope, created by the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy after the tragic sinking of the boat carrying 500 people near Lampedusa in September 2013. Initially the churches opened a small observatory in Lampedusa, but it was clear that more than just immediate aid was needed. The Federation wanted to provide social care and integration support after the initial sea rescue and after much deliberation, on 12 December 2014, it opened the Casa delle Culture in Scicli, a remote town at the bottom of a deep limestone valley in Ragusa, south-eastern Sicily.

Normally, the municipality organises a centre like this outside of the city

Walking down into Scicli is akin to stepping back in time; a few of the once-inhabited caves etched into the surrounding hills have been restored for tourists and the cobbled streets off the town’s main road lead to magnificent baroque churches with Sicily’s history of conquest and myriad of cultural influences detailed in religious sculptures, dramatic facades and intricate balconies. It could be the perfect pace to convalesce. And despite the town’s remoteness, Mediterranean Hope lies at the heart of a seemingly strong community, situated around the corner from the town’s main square.

‘I think it is an interesting project because we have a centre for refugees in the centre of the city,’ says Francesco Sciotto, a young Methodist pastor based at the church of Scicli, which is on the same street as the centre. ‘Normally, the municipality organises a centre like this outside of the city.’

Francesco’s church is part of ‘Mediterranean Hope’. He says the church’s history of social intervention spans more than 100 years in Scicli and that was key to the decision to open the Casa delle Culture there. ‘Casa delle Culture is not just a centre for refugees but also a centre about cultural integration. It is a very open space, open for refugees who can go out and come back when they want, but also open to the population of Scicli.’

Initially there was some opposition to opening such a centre in the small town, mostly whipped up by Italian fascist anti-migrant group Forza Nuova. Francesco laughs and says that the group’s presence in Scicli is minimal; when they called a protest against the centre just six or seven people turned up. The pastor says the project is well supported locally, beyond the church. ‘Many people in the city helped us. Not just from the church, but social organisations, students from high schools. They were very interested in our project, now they come to the centre and they help us.’

Casa delle Culture is not part of the Italian immigration reception centre system where financing is provided by central government and the European Union. The cost of the centre, which includes eight social workers, is covered by the ‘otto per mille’ or eight per thousand tax, which all Italians pay. Tax payers choose the recipient of 8% of their income tax. Recipients consist of organised religious groups and the state, and the money should be spent on social works. Much of the centre’s funding comes from the otto per mille tax receipts received by the Union of Methodist and Waldensian churches.

Sexual violence against women is common at every stage of the journey to Europe, and can continue on arrival when people are left in large reception centres and camps with little protection

It is one of the few centres where only women, children and boys under 18 are housed. No adult men are allowed to stay. As well as meeting the immediate need for beds, the centre tries to provide an integrated service not offered elsewhere.

‘It is for women that need extra security,’ says Giovannella Schifo, who has managed the centre since it opened in 2014. ‘When people need to be removed from the reception centre environment and taken somewhere safe.’

An MSF doctor or concerned state official based at the port in Pozzallo will refer women or unaccompanied children to the centre. Usually, it is women who are pregnant, women with small children and those with obvious psychological needs, suffering from the after-effects of significant trauma.

Sexual violence against women is common at every stage of the journey to Europe, and can continue on arrival when people are left in large reception centres and camps with little protection. And while the women making the journeys from across the Middle East and Africa to Europe are far from victims and often agents of their voyage, the act of moving makes them more vulnerable.

‘It is the journey. It is because they are moving and they are women,’ says Giovannella. She explains: ‘Violence against women is everywhere. It happens in their home countries, it happens in Italy, it happens. Not just to migrants.

‘But it is doubly traumatising when it happens to women in such restricted spaces because they can’t get away from it. They’re on the boat or they’re in Libya waiting to be housed or they are in a refugee camp. That compounds the trauma.’

Violence against women is everywhere. But it is doubly traumatising when it happens to women in such restricted spaces because they can’t get away from it

Giovanella tells me about a beautiful 20-year-old woman from the Gambia on board one of the ships arriving at Pozzallo last year. MSF doctors at the port noticed she was agitated; she would tear her clothes off and was jumpy. Eventually she was sent to a psychiatric hospital and after a brief stay referred to Casa delle Culture. At first she refused to leave the building. When a man approached she would start to take her clothes off again. But after some time, she became calmer and even left the building to meet and speak to locals without fear. She never explained what had caused her distress, but Giovannella was just pleased with her progress. It wasn’t until some women arrived at the centre and recognised her that Giovanelli learnt some of her past. They had known her in Libya; she had been tied up and raped by several men.

Many of the women arriving with young babies have also been raped, either on the boat or in transit countries like Libya. ‘The children are fine because they are only four or five months old,’ says Giovannella. ‘They quite often have illnesses caused by the journey. So they might be malnourished or dehydrated. But it is the mothers who are very traumatised.’

Which is why Casa delle Culture is so invaluable. ‘They get to do normal things in a safe space. Get up in the morning, make breakfast, have Italian lessons, go for a walk in the afternoon, visit the main piazza. It is important for them to do these things without feeling under threat,’ says Giovannella.

Despite the haven offered by the centre, there still comes a time when the women will have to continue their navigation through the system. Women stay at the centre anywhere from one week to a couple of months. The Ministry of Interior decides where they are to be transferred to next, but the centre will do as much as possible to influence that decision. Staff lobbied for one woman and her two-year-old to go to Naples, for example, because she had family there and could more easily establish a network of support. The alternative is that they are sent to one of the many ‘sprar’ centres around Italy, which are usually smaller than the initial reception centres, housing a dozen or so other migrants or refugees.

‘In theory, the sprar centre should find them work,’ says Giovannella, ‘in reality not all of them do.’

Often sprar centres will have relationships with local businesses which will provide work experience for the people staying there under special state subsidised contracts. It is usually in the service sector or agricultural work and lasts a few months. At one sprar I visit in Ragusa I meet a young sub-Saharan asylum seeker who was given a three-month contract to work in a florist. At other times, farmers turned up at his spar each morning and took three or four people to work in the fields. They were paid in cash. One man received around €200 a month. Often it can simply be a way of securing cheap labour, but if a refuge or migrant finds a good placement and is staying at a good sprar committed to integration, it can lead to an offer of permanent work or at least a chance to learn some transferable skills.

The trouble is a lack of accountability throughout the system – anyone can open a sprar and collect the €35 per person housed per day to cover costs – and the EU-wide reception standards set out in European legislation are not always applied. In response to the large numbers of people arriving from 2013 onwards, the government streamlined the tender process for sprar centres, making it quicker and easier to apply for and win contracts. In many cases, these means sprars aren’t always equipped to provide integration services necessary.

While the summits and politicians focus on rescue and the initial arrival, there is little thought given to whether or not existing integration structures have the capacity to meet the million-plus people arriving. Giovannella tells me, ‘Giving people somewhere to live and some food is not the only thing people need. These people have been through wars, they have needs, they want to make a new life in Italy.’  It is why the Casa delle Culture hosts a cultural space on one floor to encourage Italians to take part in the integration process, swapping stories and food, creating theatre and music performances alongside the refugees and migrants. It is a hopeful experiment, but one operating in a sea of chaos.

Which is part of the problem. Once people leave Casa delle Culture, the landscape changes. The day before Therese’s episode, she received her papers granting her temporary leave to remain. When a person receives their papers the €2.50 support ends, and for Therese this means leaving her family at Casa delle Culture and the warm welcome she received in Scicli.

 

It is women like Therese whom Fatima wants to help.

How she will do this while her situation is so precarious is unclear. Collecting, cooking, stirring, she says. I will collect people with experience, especially Italian people and together we can do something. Lucia, an Italian activist with more than 10 years of experience working for migrant rights in Italy, is one of Fatima’s growing network.

I met Lucia in downtown Catania soon after her first meeting with Fatima and just before she rushes off to advise at a drop in centre for migrants. She enthuses about Fatima, saying it is rare that she has the opportunity to build relationships with female migrants or refugees; the Syrian women she’s met all leave Sicily quickly, so it is very difficult to ascertain the needs of women in immigrant communities here.

Since the start of the crisis in 2013 Lucia has thrown herself into understanding (and exposing) the realities for people on the ground and linking them with wider human rights struggles. She left her job in Milan with the plan to stay in Sicily for three months – more than a year later she is still here.

‘I never really understood the crisis until I moved to Sicily and saw with my own eyes what the issues were,’ she says. These are issues around exploitation; in particular, the existence of smugglers operating on the edge of camps in Sicily and elsewhere in Europe, and the mismanagement or corruption in reception centres across Italy.

We believe that the defence of their rights is the defence of our rights

Prior to her move south, Lucia gave legal advice to refugees and worked for a trade union. Now her work is a mix of research, activism and support work within migrant and refugee communities across Catania and Syracuse. She contributes to a blog named Borderline Sicily that monitors arrivals at the ports, the situation within camps and dispersals. Her ultimate aim is to help protect migrant by making them aware of their rights. ‘We believe that the defence of their rights is the defence of our rights,’ she says.

Like Fatima and others in Sicily, Lucia is thinking about what happens beyond the initial rescue programme and what the so-called refugee crisis means for European politics and society. One way to do this, she says, is to ‘keep the human connection’. But how?

Lucia says, ‘I have met many ordinary Italians helping with the arrivals. Then they realise that the migrants are like them. It is important to have migrants living side by side with Italians. They should live in cities where they can meet Italians.’

Humanising the crisis is one way to reclaim the dominant political narrative and focus instead on human rights questions, she adds. Even after the image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi shifted the public conscience, discussions in Europe still focus on the numbers of people arriving and the politics of settling them, rather than their rights as refugees or as people moving within the EU’s Schengen area or what happens when they come up against closed external borders. Lucia’s antidote is to, ‘Listen to the stories of people. I follow their life day by day and I see the consequences of political decisions. You see people waiting, they go crazy. People are forced to escape after three years you can see the impact of politics on the body of migrants.’

It’s is very difficult though because lots of people arrive full of energy, but then they are kept waiting for one year or more with no information or support

Her fear is that Fatima will lose her drive because of the way the system is designed. ‘She has so much energy. It’s is very difficult though because lots of people arrive full of energy, but then they are kept waiting for one year or more with no information or support. Fatima wants to stay energetic by helping other women, but it will be difficult because of her situation.’

 

The EU response to the movement of people, essentially as a result of war, persecution and global inequality, has been to focus on security and continue exporting border control.

The European Commission announced plans for a permanent border and coastal patrol with increased powers, which will include the ability to deport people and a mandate to launch operations in non-EU transit countries. In November, EU member states pledged an extra €3bn in ‘aid’ to Turkey to support its efforts in managing refugee and migrant flows. In return Turkey must ‘help stem the irregular migration’, which in effect means prevent people from entering the EU from Turkey. In some cases, governments were willing to extend control of movement to EU citizens and close Schengen area borders, as in the case of France after the Paris attacks and in October when Hungary closed its borders to refugees. Most recently Sweden has introduced border checks for people entering from Denmark for the first time since 1957, having secured temporary exemption from the Schengen agreement rules.

But even the bureaucrats in Brussels recognise that militarising borders and creating a fortress around Europe can only have a limited effect on the movement of people. At the summit on migration in Valletta last year, a plan was developed to support and invest in the long term regional development in Africa. The wide ranging conference covered the need to increase diplomatic efforts in regional conflicts, the need for legal migration routes, and the creation of better employment opportunities in high-migrant producing countries. The action plan, like most Commission documents on migration and movement, is high on ideals and there is much talk of human rights and dignity, a far cry from the experiences of people moving through Europe today.

It’s unsurprising that there is much scepticism on the ground. When I meet Chiara Montaldo at her office in Pozzallo, one of the Sicilian ports where the EU is trialling its hotspot response to the crisis, she appears resigned. MSF’s work in responding to people drowning in the Mediterranean as they tried to reach Europe began long before the current crisis. What is frustrating, says Chiara, is the tendency for governments to remain in crisis mode. The number of people moving had already begun to rocket in 2014, so the response in 2015 should have been much better. Instead, it is as though each landing is a surprise and the response becomes ad hoc rather than well planned in advance.

‘We all knew. It’s not a surprise,’ says Chiara. ‘A small example. The centre here in Pozzallo has a capacity of 180 people. For at least two years the average number of people arriving in one landing is 400. This centre has not been adapted. This is just in terms of numbers, I haven’t even touched on services. There is too much attention on the rescue,’ she says. ‘It seems the problems are the boats, the sea and the landing. The problems start when they land.’

Lucia says something similar: ‘It’s a big excuse to say it’s an emergency. This has been happening for 20 years. The system is disorganised. A lot of people make money from this. There is no oversight or regulation. It is important to destroy this image of an emergency, it’s an excuse for people to do whatever they want.’

 

A few weeks after returning home to the UK, I hear from Fatima.

She’s been granted six-months temporary leave to remain in Italy. She still lives at the camp in Città Giardino and has begun recording the testimonies of the women living there on her mobile phone. Her activism continues and she recently posted a picture of her ‘first level Italian certificate’ online. Fatima remains ‘energetic’ but she sounds sad and tired.

‘Up to next year I will stay here. If I can I will rent a flat and get a job. When everything is alright I wish to bring my children. It’s been two years since I last saw them and I can’t continue to leave my mother alone.’

But before she can realise any of her plans, she must wait for a second interview regarding her migration status. Though she’s been on the move for years and in Sicily some six months or more, I sense her journey has barely begun.

 

*Names changed to protect identity.

References

Articles / blogs / reports

AIDA Asylum Information Database country report Italy
Italian Council for Refugees (2015)

Hein de Haas. Trans-Saharan Migration to North Africa and the EU: Historical Roots and Current Trends Migration Policy Institute (1 November 2006)

Hein de Haas. Morocco: Setting the Stage for Becoming a Migration Transition Country? Migration Policy Institute (19 March 2014)

Increased Influx of migrants in Lampedusa, Italy
Joint report from the Ministry of Health, Italy and the WHO Regional Office for Europe mission of 28-29 March 2011

Italy: end of ongoing sea rescue mission ‘puts thousands at risk’ The Guardian (31 October 2014)

Martin Baldwin-Edwards. The Changing Mosaic of Mediterranean Migrations Migration Policy Institute (1 June 2004)

Pogrom The Economist (12 October 2000)

Pushed back, Pushed around: Italy’s Forced Return of Boat Migrants and Asylum Seekers, Libya’s Mistreatment of Migrants and Asylum Seekers
Human Rights Watch (21 September 2009)

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi. A better life? A study of irregular migration through Europe to Britain (2011)

Report by Thomas Hammarberg, Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, following his visit to Italy from 26 to 27 May 2011
(7 September 2011)

siciliamigranti blog

The Battle for Libya: Killings, disappearances and torture
Amnesty International (2011)

UNHCR concerned over humanitarian situation in Lampedusa, Italy The UN Refugee Agency (23 January 2009)

 

Data / stats / maps

Eurostat -asylum quarterly report
http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Asylum_quarterly_report

IOM missing migrants project
http://missingmigrants.iom.int/

The Migrant Files
http://www.themigrantsfiles.com/

The Migrant Files datasheet: events during which someone died trying to reach or stay in Europe
https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1YNqIzyQfEn4i_be2GGWESnG2Q80E_fLASffsXdCOftI/edit?pref=2&pli=1#gid=1085726718

Trans-Saharan Migration Routes
http://www.migrationpolicy.org/sites/default/files/source_images_oldsite/sahara_map_nov06.pdf

UNHCR Refugees/Migrants Emergency Response – Mediterranean
http://data.unhcr.org/mediterranean/regional.php


The European Commission – useful links

Refugee Crisis: European Commission takes decisive action – Questions and answers. Strasbourg, 9 September 2015
http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-15-5597_en.htm

Valetta summit on migration, 11/12 November 2015
http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/meetings/international-summit/2015/11/11-12/

Background
http://ec.europa.eu/priorities/migration_en

 

Books

Immigration and European Integration – Beyond Fortress Europe?
Andrew Geddes
(2008)

Refugee Cargo
Caroline Moorhead (2005)

The Uninvited. Refugees at the Rich Man’s Gate
Jeremy Harding
(2000)

 

 

 

Banner photo by Sergi Camara
Port of Tripoli by weisserstier Attribution
Photo of Talita Kum and shipwreck by Khadra Aden

 

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi is a freelance journalist and writer-in-residence at Lacuna. Rebecca has been published by a range of publications including openDemocracy, the Guardian, the New Statesman, the Washington Post, the New Internationalist, and the Socialist Lawyer. Rebecca's reporting on immigration and asylum across the European Union was shortlisted for the 2012 George Orwell Prize for Political Writing (blog category) and the 2013 Speaking Together Media Award. In 2012 Rebecca published Gardens, a collaboration with photographer Christina Theisen. The pamphlet illuminates the experiences of environmental activists in London fighting to save the city’s biodiversity, while tackling social inequality. Rebecca's reporting exposing the impact of government policy on ordinary lives was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize 2015. @Rebecca_Omonira

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